Thursday, September 3, 2015

Reason to Watch

Apple Watch? Apple, Why?

The iPad was a big iPod touch. But nobody had done that before (with any traction), so it was labelled as a New Apple Product. Apple watch is a small iPhone. But nobody has done that before (with any traction), so it was labelled as a New Apple Product. It looks like a watch, so I guess they called it the right name. A knob that rotates. A glass face and metal body. A strap separate from the body. Promoted as jewelry. In previous years, the iPhone Operating System (iPhone OS, now iOS) replaced many stand-alone portable objects for most people: still cameras, audio/video recorders, audio/video players, books, address books, notepads, calculators, simple gaming devices, e-readers, flashlights, watches, and notably, keyboard-laden cellphones. People stopped using them because the iPhone was a fantastic all-in-one device, made by a trusted and reliable company. Now that company is telling us to use one of those objects again. No. Why should we? We refuse. What can it do for us? That's a fair question.


The original iPhone was conceived to be simple, and it did a small number of things extremely well. Limited by telecom companies, it was primarily for gadget lovers and trend-caressing fashionistas. As people became familiar with it, people became able to handle new innovations. The original Campfire users would be worshipping the Microwave instead of using one, had not the Cast-iron Oven interceded. One of those innovations was being able to be pestered by more than just phone calls: notifications. Notifications were tacked on, and were often useful when micro-managed. Too often, apparently. This iOS house was not built for them, and they were sent to the attic (pull down from the top to view the attic). Now, Apple wishes they would just move out entirely. Indeed, if you use bunches of notifications, you should buy an Apple watch. (Checking the time is a self-imposed notification.) This is currently the only reason to justify the price of Apple watch, aside from I Gotta Be Seen With That.


What else ya got, Apple? Timepiece as a stylish modern fashion accessory? Modern? Could you be any more old-fashioned? Is there a smaller slice of the public to appeal to? It's adorable that rich old white studs have the moral and ethical health nut James Bond to pattern their lives after. But that does not make relevant the 20th century notion of strapping a cast-iron oven to your wrist, simply because the cool guys did it, back when men were men. Those were the days. "Were". We keep microwaves in our pockets now. Is it because microwaves are trendy? Is it because that's what all the kids are using? Nope. It's just the most functional solution. Watch guys can wear their redundant modern object, just like classic car guys can drive their beautifully impractical roadsters. Indeed, if a trend is called "modern classic", it is not forward-thinking, ready to replace a classic solution with a modern solution. It's just an old solution, fashionably polished and refined. Tick-tock. Get with the future. (It's promising that none of Apple's watch faces vibrate a tick-tock feeling into the wrist. I hope they disallow that for third-party faces, too.) To their credit, Apple did get with the future, in two important ways.


The vibration interaction with Apple watch is A Big Deal. The iPhone vibrates, but that is designed to be an alert requiring visual interaction and tactile precision. Vibration on this watch is a marquee feature, caused by the new Taptic Engine. It benefits both sensory-impaired wearers, and other folks who cannot always be looking at something and then touch the right bit of an iOS screen. Vibration can communicate many different things, due to its sensitivity and constant presence on the wrist. As the years pass, its vocabulary of nuanced vibrations will increase (Two Taptic Engines? Both wrists? Other body locations?) just like the capabilities of Siri has expanded (Apple's speech-activated features). Where are you relative to your surroundings? Relative to where your wrist is located in space? Relative to where you are in the UI of watch OS? Or relative to the iPhone you would have otherwise forgot to put in your pocket when you left home today? Or relative to the gas burner you almost left on? Or to the family member you nearly forgot to bring in the car? You might not feel the iPhone vibrate (or hear it). Apple watch? Always.


How Apple watch can monitor the biology of its wrist is A Big Deal. Looking through the non-tattooed skin yields a treasure trove of data (though it needs way more than its huge array of 1 enabled sensor). Not simply data that involves health, but identity. It instantly knows who you are, without having to touch something first, because of constant contact. (Example: Apple Pay disengages when the watch is loosened.) Always-on-your-wrist means always-being-you-and-only-you in your nearby wireless world. You can personally interact with any (enabled) location you approach, whether that's the range of a check-out counter, or the areas of a theme park, parking garage, shopping mall, or casino. Also, any hospital, college campus, retail store, grocery store, your own vehicle and home, and so on. Doors can unlock, and people (and ads?) can more easily find you and assist you. These things are currently courtesy of Touch ID, transmitted from the much-easier-to-lose-than-a-watch iPhone. But that sensor will soon merge with Apple watch itself, as Apple watch journeys to the fabled Untethered Lands, first explored by its ancestors.


Apple does not acknowledge those two biological features (dependable vibration alerts and specific wrist identification) as the core purposes of Apple watch. Instead, it brags that Apple watch is capable of doing what the iPhone does (communicate the time and with people, both great if the watch did not require the phone), along with health monitoring (extremely limited in its current implementation) and fitness trainer (nearly nobody cares in this lazy world). The iPhone famously was at an advantage in looking unique and being forward-thinking: its designers hated their current keyboard-laden cellphones. For similar reasons, Apple watch is at a disadvantage: its designers loved current watches, particularly the expensive kind. They wanted this wrist-vibrating, ID-sensing gadget to be a watch. An expensive watch that reminded them of their beloved single-function timepieces. So, the "timepiece" UI was made front-and-center. So, they called it a "watch". So, it was made of expensive precisely-cut materials. (Well, so are all Apple products, but this one is Really made well.) And they finally had a convenient excuse for these no-good punk Notifications to break it off with their iOS daughters, girls who need to focus on their careers and not be weighed down with extra obligations.


When its sensor array is fully operational and most locations are enabled to work with it (many years), when the vibration engine is fully explored and fully integrated into the OS (a few years), this device will have reached the stage that it would have been best to introduce it on. Until then, it can only appeal to those who love gadgets, or to those who long to wear expensive timepieces. It's not for everybody, and more not-for-everybody than most Apple products. And that's okay. What it does well, it does great, but what it will do best, it does not do great, yet. But it will. This is the Cthulhu of companies we are talking about, and great products have to start somewhere. The iPhone rebuilt the word "phone", so that it means "a pocketable device used to visually interact with the wireless world". The word was chosen in order to ease people into understanding what it was and what it could do. It worked because everybody used a cellphone. They still do. The Apple watch may rebuild the word "watch", so that it means "a wrist-worn device used to biologically interact with the wireless world". The word was chosen in order to ease people into understanding what it was and what it could do. I hope it works, but few people use a wristwatch. They still don't. So, choose your future, but choose wisely.

(I wrote this in May 2015, but didn't publish it until recently, as I realized that others might want to read it.)