The smartwatch market is so small that it only took a day or two for the Apple Watch to emerge as the biggest selling techno-timepiece in history.
Now that it has been a while since the world’s most expensive Mickey Mouse watch has been glitzing the wrists of a few million early adopters (Apple coyly won’t say how many), it’s time to ask what the thing is good for, anyway.
The positive perspective from—full disclosure—this Apple shareholder is that I think the bauble may prove to be no less than the precursor of a paradigm shift in personal computing. More on that in a moment.
But, first, I have to say that I am skeptical about whether smartwatches can deliver much value to media companies desperately seeking to burnish their digital bona fides. In fact, I think publishers should be cautious about dedicating significant resources to developing smartwatch apps, because the best ideas publishers have marshaled so far verge on being downright irritating to consumers.
Given the teensy size of smartwatch screens, it is not possible to tell full stories on them—and the user experience would be unpleasant if publishers tried. Recognizing this limitation, most publishers have elected to publish one-screen text alerts, which buzz the user’s wrist when a new one arrives.
The problem, as noted by many early reviewers of the Apple Watch, is that they are inundated not only with pings for breaking news but also with daylong vibrating alerts to incoming emails, tweets, texts, meeting reminders, pizza deals and, well, you get the idea.
While users will welcome the sparing use of text alerts for truly significant events—like an incoming tornado—publishers need to eschew text as much as possible in favor of graphically packaged information that can be consumed at a glance. So far, we haven’t seen much of that sort of creativity.
Because even animated emojis get old fast, the first order of business for many Apple Watch users is figuring out how to reduce incoming alerts. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that publishers who think relentless news alerts are the killer app are likely to find the only thing getting killed is their audience.
Fortunately, there are better ideas. Instead of using smartwatches to distribute information, publishers should use them to interact with consumers in new and innovative ways through crowd reporting, polls, surveys, games, quizzes and other initiatives that take advantage of the persistent presence of what Dick Tracy would instantly recognize as a two-way watch radio. These activities can be coupled with subtle and sensible commercial promotions to a) boost revenues, b) capture granular data that publishers can sell to advertisers and c) leverage the very same data to enhance publisher marketing capabilities.
Now, here’s why the Watch bears watching:
The old way of computing required active engagement and considerable skill on the part of users to persuade the clever but obstreperous machines to serve their needs. Smartwatches are different because they are passive devices that are unobtrusively strapped to your body throughout the day. The ubiquity and intimacy of a computing device that knows your heartbeat better than you know it yourself is unprecedented in the history of computing.
With scant effort on your part after you fire them up, smartwatches monitor your health by tracking your footsteps, your sitting time and the intensity of your workouts. They can serve as personal assistants, keeping you on schedule, routing you around traffic jams, presenting your boarding pass and unlocking your room at certain high-tech hotels. They can remember where you parked your car, remotely start the engine, unlock the doors and open the garage when you near home. They already can complete credit card transactions with the flick of a wrist and in the future, could become repositories for your identity, replacing your driver’s license, serving as your office badge and archiving vital medical information like your DNA.
Smartwatches could well emerge as the master controllers in the so-called Internet of Things because they will be the single device that knows who you are, where you are, what are doing and what you are likely to want to do next.
As discussed in an earlier column (tinyurl.com/mh8nzmx), it won’t be long before the techiest homes are wired with sensors, microphones, projectors, speakers and wall-sized displays that provide on-demand access to sports scores, shopping services, cooking videos, music and anything else you please.
The Apple Watch, the Pebble and other competing smartwatches may not turn out to be the direct forebears of this sort of ubiquitous computing, but something awfully close to them will be. So, yes, smartwatches matter. Only time will tell how much they can do beyond just telling time.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley CEO who today consults with media companies on technology and technology companies on the media. He blogs at Reflections of Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).