The phone dominates your attention. For nearly every use, the phone has your undivided attention. Browsing the web, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, watching video, reading, messaging—all require focus on a screen that fills your vision, your primary attention, and generally some kind of interaction. Everything else, too, is always a home button or notification-tap away at all times.
Is that a shock when the phone is the single gateway to nearly everything? The PC is now for doing work, but the phone is for messaging, taking photos, sharing them, the web, Twitter, Facebook, finding places to go, getting directions there, and even making calls.
That is the reason we find ourselves, when we receive a message and pull out our phones to respond, often descending into a muscle memory check of our other iMessages, emails and Twitter stream. We pull out our phone for one purpose, like responding to a message or checking our schedule, and end up spending several mindless minutes (or, if I am honest, more than “several minutes”) checking in on whatever it is. We find ourselves doing this even when we shouldn’t. We do it while seeing friends and family, while out to dinner with them, while at home with family when we should be spending time with them or doing other things.
I used “we” above because I think anyone with a smartphone, or anyone who knows people with them, can find truth in it to a greater or lesser extent.
My concern with wrist-worn “smartwatches,” starting with the Pebble, is that they appear to primarily exist to push notifications that we receive on our phone to our wrist. They seem to exist to make dealing with phone calls, messages, updates easier; seeing them, ignoring them, replying to them. They are there to make dealing with our phones more convenient. And in large part, that is how smartwatches have been designed and used. “It’s there so I don’t have to pull my phone out of my pocket.”
But that idea of what smartwatches are for, making it more convenient to deal with the flood of notifications and information our phones provide us, is unimaginative. I think what the smartwatch can do is make the phone unnecessary for many purposes, create new purposes altogether, and allow us to benefit from a wrist-sized screen’s limitations.
The Apple Watch
On September 9th, Apple introduced their long-awaited watch, appropriately named the Apple Watch (from herein “the Watch”). We won’t be able to fully understand what Apple’s built until next year, but they did provide a fairly detailed look at the Watch and the software it runs.
It appears that, in contrast to Google’s approach with Google Wear (which is heavily focused on showing single bits of information or points of interaction on the screen, and relies on swiping between cards of data and interaction), Apple intends the Watch to run fairly sophisticated applications. The Watch retains the iPhone’s touch interface, but Apple has designed new means of interaction specific to a small screen. In addition to the tap, the Watch brings the “force tap,” which is used to bring up different options within applications (like, say, the shuffle and AirPlay buttons within the music application), and the “digital crown,” a repurposing of the normal watch’s crown into a sort of scroll wheel for the Watch. Using the digital crown, users can zoom in and out of maps and scroll through lists with precision and without covering the small screen. And, most interestingly, they have replaced the familiar vibration alert in our phones with a light “tap” from the Watch to notify the user.
What this allows is fairly sophisticated applications. You can not only search for locations around you, but you can zoom in and out of maps. You can scroll through your emails, messages, events or music. You can control your Apple TV.
This subsumes many of the reasons we pull out our phones during the day. We can check our schedule for the day, check a message when it’s received and send a quick reply, find a place to get a drink after dinner (and get directions there without having to walk and stare at your phone), ignore a phone call by placing your hand over your wrist, or put something on the Apple TV.
But what force taps and the digital crown will not do is make the Watch’s small screen as large as a phone’s. You can’t type out a reply to a message or email. You can’t browse the web for something. You can’t dig through a few months of your email to find a certain one. You can’t mindlessly swipe through Twitter (well, you could, but it’s going to be pretty difficult). That, though, is an advantage the Watch has over the phone. Because it is inherently limited, it also has to be laser-focused on a single purpose, and while using it, you are limited to accomplishing something. It’s a lot harder to lose yourself in a 1.5″ screen than it is in a 4+ inch screen.
That’s going to be one of the Watch’s primary purposes for existing: allowing us to do many of the things we do on our phones right now, but in a way that’s limited and, thus, less distracting. If you’re out to dinner and receive a message (and haven’t turned on Do Not Disturb), you’re going to be a lot less likely to spend a couple minutes on a reply, and then Instagram, if you’re checking and responding it to it on the Watch. It just doesn’t work that way.
In that way, I think Apple has embraced the wrist-worn watch’s inherent limitations. Rather than try to work around them, they are using them. They’ve built new means of interaction (force tap, digital crown, “taptic” feedback) that allows fairly sophisticated applications, but they didn’t use them to cram iOS in its entirety into the Watch.
What I think Apple is trying to do is build a new mode of personal computing on the wrist that is molded from the inherent limitations and opportunities that creates.
In Jony Ive’s introduction to the Watch, Ive ends with a statement of purpose of sorts for it. He says,
I think we are now at a compelling beginning, actually designing technology to be worn. To be truly personal.
That sounds like a platitude, but I think it defines what Apple is trying to do. “Taptic feedback,” which Dave Hamilton describes as feeling like someone tapping you on the wrist, is a much less intrusive and jolting way of getting a notification than a vibration against your leg or the terrible noise it makes on a table, and more generally, focusing the Watch’s use on quick single purposes is, too.
What is interesting to me, though, is they are using the Watch’s nature to do things in a more personal—human—way, and to do things that the phone can’t. When providing directions, the Watch shows them on the screen just as you would expect on a phone, but it also does something neat: when it’s time to turn, it will let you know using its Taptic feedback, and it differentiates between left and right. As a result, there isn’t a need to stare at your phone while walking somewhere and getting directions.
They’ve also created a new kind of messaging. Traditionally, “messages” are either words sent from one person to another using text or speech. Since messages are communication through word, something inherently mental or intellectual rather than emotional, they are divorced from emotion. We can try to communicate emotion through text or speech (emoticons serve exactly that purpose), but communicating emotion to another person is always translated into text or speech, and then thought about by them, rather than felt. In person, we can communicate emotion with our facial expressions, body gestures, and through touch. There’s a reason hugging your partner before they leave on a long trip is so much more powerful than a text message saying you’ll miss them.
In a small way, using the Watch, Apple is trying to create a new way to communicate that can capture some of that emotion. Because the Watch can effectively “tap” your wrist, others can tap out a pattern on their Watch, and it will re-create those taps on your wrist, almost like they are tapping you themselves. You could send a tap-tap to your partner’s wrist while they are away on a trip just to say that you’re thinking about them. Isn’t that so much more meaningful a way to say it than a text message saying it? Doesn’t it carry more emotion and resonance?
That’s what they mean by making technology more personal. It means making it more human.
The Watch is not about making it more convenient to deal with notifications and information sent to us. It’s not even about, as I described above, keeping your phone in your pocket more often (although that will be a result). The Watch is creating a new kind of computing of our wrists that will be for different purposes than what the phone is for and what the tablet and PC are for. The Watch is for quickly checking and responding to messages, checking your schedule, finding somewhere to go and getting directions there, for helping you lead a more active (healthier) life, and for a more meaningful form of communication. And it will do that without sucking our complete attention onto it, like the phone, tablet and PC do.
The Watch is for doing things with the world and people around us. Finding places to go, getting there, exercising, checking in at the airport, and sending more meaningful messages. Even notifying you of a new message (if you don’t have Do Not Disturb turned on) while out to dinner with family or friends serves this purpose, because if you have to see it, you can do so in a less disruptive way and get back to what you are doing—spending time with people important to you.
The Watch is a new kind of computing born of, and made better by, it’s limitations. And I can’t wait.