Apple Watch and Continuous Computing

From day one of this blog I have insisted that I don’t do product reviews: I don’t buy every phone or, in this case, watch on the market, and I happily defer to publications that specialize in exactly that.1 That’s not to claim ignorance: I read voraciously, including reviews, talk to as many “normal” people as I can in as many places as I can, and think I have a sense for where various categories are at. And given that, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the Apple Watch is being serially underestimated. Nor, I think, is the long term threat to Apple’s position being fully appreciated.

The Wrist is Interesting

Back in 2013, at AllThingsD, Tim Cook said, “I see [wearables] as a very key branch of the tree,” and that “The wrist is interesting. The wrist is natural.” I fully agreed, and that, more than anything, was the basis for my optimism about the Watch over a year before its release. Over the long arc of technology, the fundamental characteristic of every new wave of devices that eclipses what came before is that they are smaller and (thus) more convenient:2

  • Minicomputers were smaller and more convenient than mainframes, meaning various departments in a corporation could have their own computers, instead of time-sharing
  • Desktop PCs were smaller and more convenient than minicomputers, meaning individuals could have their own computers
  • Laptops were smaller and more convenient than desktops, meaning individuals could have their own computers in more places
  • Phones were smaller and more convenient than laptops, meaning individuals could have their own computers with them nearly all of the time

“Nearly all the time” is pretty amazing, and I get the arguments that the smartphone is the pinnacle of computer evolution: it’s portable, but readable, and multi-touch works and works well. But any interaction with your phone is still a cloistered one — you, your phone, and nothing else — which to my mind leaves at least one more evolutionary jump: continuous computing, no matter your context. Indeed, when it comes to ensuring a computer is always present and always accessible, the wrist is both natural and interesting.

Still, success isn’t guaranteed: the ability of a watch, or in this case the Apple Watch, to enable a new area of continuous computing depends on three factors:

  • The physical design of the Watch
  • The interaction model for the Watch
  • The ability of the Watch to interact with its environment

Apple and its competitors’ ability to deliver on each of these factors will determine whether the category ends up being a nice side business to phones, or the next step in the trend towards ever smaller and ever more convenient personal computers. And, for what it’s worth, after a few weeks with the Apple Watch, I’m increasingly bullish that it is the latter.

Physical Design

It may seem odd to declare that physical design is of equal import to the other factors that will determine a computer’s success, but a Watch is no ordinary computer: it’s one you wear. At Apple’s second Watch event Tim Cook said:

Apple Watch is the most personal device we have ever created. It’s not just with you, it’s on you. And since what you wear is an expression of who you are, we’ve designed Apple Watch to appeal to a whole variety of people with different tastes and different preferences. But the one thing that is consistent is that we crafted each one of them with the care that you would expect from Apple and used incredibly beautiful materials.

I added in How Apple Will Make the Wearable Market:

There has been a bit of consternation about Apple’s focus on “fashion” and all that entails, but there is a very practical aspect to this focus: people need to be willing to actually put the wearable on their body. While “form may follow function” for tools, the priorities are the exact opposite when it comes to what we wear: function is irrelevant without a form we find appealing. In this case, design actually is how it looks.

I’m not going to convince you that the Apple Watch is attractive or not, but to my eyes at least, it is significantly ahead of anything else on the market. And, frankly, I don’t think that surprises anyone. Apple’s industrial design is generally superior, but that superiority is maximized when a product or manufacturing technique is new: given that smartphones like the Xiaomi Mi Note, HTC One, or Samsung S6 are only just now approaching the iPhone, it’s reasonable to expect a substantial head start for the Watch.

I get why most reviews only spent a sentence or at best a small section on the Watch’s appearance: it seems so shallow, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One’s skin, though, is as “shallow” as technology has ever gotten, at least compared to the depths of an office, a bag, or even a pocket. Each step towards the light increases the importance of aesthetics, and Apple’s advantage here can’t be overstated.

On the other hand, “beauty being in the eye of the beholder” accentuates the downside of Apple’s integrated approach: what people wear is an expression of who they are, and while even the most idiosyncratic individual may be willing to have a phone that looks the same as everyone else’s, that may be a bridge too far when it comes to something on their body. This is why Apple launched with such a wide array of straps and case materials,3 and why the company has already opened the door to 3rd-party bands.

For now, though, I think Apple Watch checks this box in a way other wearables to date have not: more people than not will be willing to wear it.

The Interaction Model

There is a hierarchy when it comes to actually interacting with the Watch, something Horace Dediu laid out in The Battle for the Wrist:

The Apple Watch offers a hierarchy of surfaces onto which software can compete for attention:

  1. The Complication Layer
  2. The Notification Layer
  3. The Glances Layer
  4. The App Screen

These surfaces are arranged in a hierarchy where the highest is the most accessible and the lowest is the least accessible.

The ranking is not just about accessibility: it’s also the order in which the Apple Watch executes, from best to worst.

  • Complications4 are invaluable, and the delta between pulling out your phone to check your calendar, or the weather, versus looking at your wrist is massive5
  • The Taptic Engine is a revelation when it comes to notifications; in fact, I think Apple should have the sound turned off by default to accentuate the utility of an outwardly imperceptible tap of your wrist. The way a notification is displayed when you lift your wrist in response works well, and it’s easy enough to scroll through what you have missed6
  • Glances are where you put things you need to know that don’t merit a complication7 (or, in the case of 3rd-party apps, aren’t allowed — for now); they also serve as a more easily accessible app launcher
  • The App Screen is a place you only visit deliberatively, when you need a specific function. My favorites to date include Authy, for two-factor authentication, the New York Times app, with bite-sized stories, and Twitterific, for browsing mentions and direct messages. There’s no question, though, that hybrid apps are slow to load and often frustrating to use; one wonders if Apple wouldn’t have been better served keeping the doors shut until native apps are possible

What is missing in Dediu’s hierarchy, though, is the most important feature of the Watch: Siri specifically, and the cloud broadly. Siri in particular impacts every other part of the hierarchy:

  • You can have, at most, 4.5 complications.8 To get any other information, you need to either use a Glance, an app, or, most efficiently, Siri:

    Siri-watch

    The virtual assistant is fantastic when it works, like in the first two examples. The third, though, pushed me to my phone — a terrible experience that far too many apps are mimicking — and to Bing at that, which was entirely unuseful (in stark contrast to Google):

    search-watch

  • Notifications are all well-and-good, but many, particularly messages, require a response, and Siri is the only option beyond a few canned responses, and a ghastly set of emoticons and mime hands. That’s not a bad thing! I already find speaking into my wrist to be a far more natural activity than speaking into my phone ever was, and truthfully, Siri on the Watch somehow seems vastly improved over Siri on the iPhone.

    More broadly, it’s clear that what the mouse was to the Mac and multi-touch was to the iPhone, Siri is to the Watch. The concern for Apple is that, unlike the others, the success or failure of Siri doesn’t come down to hardware or low-level software optimizations, which Apple excels at, and which ensures that Apple products have the best user interfaces. Rather, it depends on the cloud, and as much as Apple has improved, an examination of their core competencies and incentives argues that the company will never be as good as Google.9 That was acceptable on the phone, but is a much more problematic issue when the cloud is so central to the most important means of interacting with the Watch.

    There’s a second issue with notifications: in contrast to many reviewers, I’ve had no problem with the number of notifications being pushed to my wrist. In part this is because I long ago limited the number of notifications that I received, and I pruned the list still further when it came to the Watch. It’s fair to ask, though, how many customers will go to the effort? Indeed, here Google in particular may have a significant advantage with their efforts around Google Now: the very premise of the cloud service is to intelligently notify you about what you need to know when you need to know it, a proposition that is particularly compelling when it comes to something so intimate as literally tapping your wrist.

  • Both Siri and Google Now can launch apps, and again, both are essential to input in particular. I’m very frustrated at apps that don’t bother to include Siri input (LINE, I’m looking at you), but Siri itself is still frustrating, particularly because whenever it does screw up the transcription, there is no way to edit what you said. Probably the best solution is to simply continue to get better at transcription, but again, Google is ahead here and it impacts the experience far more deeply than it does on a phone

Ultimately, the interaction model is the mirror image of physical design: Apple is playing catch-up, but it’s not out of the question that Siri becomes good enough, if it’s not already.

Interacting With Your Environment

This was the primary focus of the aforelinked article, How Apple Will Make the Wearables Market:

It’s increasingly plausible to envision a future where…our physical environment are fundamentally transformed by software: locks that only unlock for me, payment systems that keep my money under my control, and in general an adaptation to my presence whether that be at home, at the concert hall, or at work.

To fully interact with this sort of software-enabled environment, I will of course need some way to identify myself; for all the benefits of the human body, projecting a unique digital signature is not one of them. The smartphone clearly works, but it’s not perfect: the more you need it for interacting with your environment, the more noticeable is the small annoyance of retrieving it from your pocket or handbag.

A wearable is different, particularly if it’s on your wrist: simply raising your arm is trivial. This makes it much more likely you will actually interact in a meaningful way with software-enabled objects around you, which makes even having said objects much more likely. To put it another way, I don’t think it’s an accident that the two hot new technologies are wearables and the Internet of Things; they are related such that each is made better by the other.

As I noted in that article, this vision has a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: software-enabled objects won’t be built for a Watch that isn’t widely available, which is why I suggested that Apple has a big advantage — the company has millions of loyal customers who will buy an Apple Watch simply because it’s made by Apple. This is further accentuated by point number one: Apple’s superior physical design makes it significantly more likely that a critical mass of Apple Watches will be sold.

Still, Apple’s success with initiatives like Apple Pay and HomeKit is not assured: I’m bullish about the former, but it’s not a slam dunk, and the latter depends on Apple delivering on an API that the company itself doesn’t depend on, a situation that hasn’t always ended well.

Looking Ahead

It’s important to note that the factors I listed matter in order: you first have to build a wearable people are willing to wear, then deliver a usable interaction model, and finally catalyze a world of smart objects that interact with your wearable.

Indeed, for now I think it likely that one of Apple’s oldest and most cherished skills — its ability to make beautiful, desirable objects — will make the Watch exactly what Tim Cook promised: another tentpole product that rivals the Mac, the iPod, the iPad, and even the iPhone. Framed as nothing more than A Watch that Does Stuff — and that you actually don’t mind wearing — Apple will rightly sell enough to kick-start a world that gets just a little bit smarter and little bit better when it knows who and where we are.

Moreover, the Watch may even help Apple to rival Google when it comes to Siri and the cloud: the best way to improve a service like Siri is to have millions of customers using it constantly, and I for one have used Siri more in the last two weeks than I have the last two years. Multiply that by millions of Watch users and you have the ingredients for a rapidly improving service. Perhaps more importantly, the fact that Siri is critical to the Watch’s success in a way it isn’t to the iPhone’s may finally properly align Apple’s incentives around improving its cloud services.

Ultimately, the Apple Watch has exceeded my quite high expectations. The complications and notifications fit into all the slivers of my life the iPhone has not, and the criticism I’ve levied at Siri has been primarily fueled by the appreciation of just how powerful it is to have a virtual assistant on my wrist instead of my pocket. As for apps, speed is the most easily solved issue in technology, thanks to Moore’s Law. I’m confident apps will be fully performant sooner rather than later.

That said, I suspect there will be a bifurcation when it comes to the Watch’s relative importance vis-à-vis the smartphone between developed and developing countries: in the long run I do think that convenience trumps all, but there’s no denying a smartphone is already pretty darn convenient. To put it another way, if you can afford it there is a sufficient delta between Watch and iPhone functionality to make the former worth owning despite its dependence on the latter. I also think that when the Watch inevitably gains cellular functionality10 I will carry my iPhone far less than I do today.11 Indeed, just as the iPhone makes far more sense as a digital hub than the Mac, the Watch will one day be the best hub yet.

Until, of course, physical devices disappear completely:

her-movie-poster

That is the ultimate Apple bear case.12


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  1. I do give my opinion on Twitter and Exponent []
  2. They are also, in the long run, cheaper, in part because of scale. Indeed, the Apple Watch packs in an amazing amount of functionality for a mere $350 []
  3. I suspect had you told Tim Cook in 1998 that he would eventually oversee a product launch that included 38 models and 56 SKUs, he would have assumed he was having a nightmare — and certainly the number of SKU’s contributed to the Watch’s uneven launch []
  4. Complications are the “extra” features on a watch face beyond the time []
  5. Windows Phone tried to differentiate on this point, but the delta between a live tile and opening an app was far smaller than the delta between pulling out a phone and lifting up your wrist []
  6. And there’s an easy way to clear all notifications finally []
  7. For example, this is where I have my battery meter: the truth is I haven’t worried once about the battery running low []
  8. Modular and Simple (ironically) offer 4 complications plus the date []
  9. Nathan Taylor nailed this point on his excellent Praxtime blog two years ago []
  10. I agree it is several years off, but it’s clearly not impossible: several standalone smart watches exist today, not that I would want to wear any of them []
  11. Developers: heed this: don’t always assume the phone will be there! My biggest complaint about apps, outside of the terrible loading times, is that few outside of RSS readers (natch) let me read full articles. I read tens of thousands of words on this — I’ll do the same on the Watch []
  12. Yes, I know much of Her is not realistic; that doesn’t mean it’s not pointed in a broadly realistic direction []