Apple, wearables, innovation, and the coming iWatch
My mother is by herself at home in Denver preparing dinner. My father is out of town on a business, my sister lives 15 minutes from our parents' home, and I am 5000 miles away in China. My mother turns to open the refrigerator and suddenly slips on a floor mat and falls to the ground, breaking her hip.
Within 5 seconds, the Apple iWatch senses her accelerated heart rate, a loss of blood pressure, and changes in her blood oxygen level. In essence, the watch's combine sensors know that her body has just undergone a trauma.
It is morning in China and within 20 seconds of my mother's fall, I receive an alert on my iPhone from "Mother's iWatch" saying it has perceived there is a possible emergency situation. I open the alert to see my mother's location along with a readout of the changes to my mother's physical condition, such as pulse, blood pressure, etc. Simultaneously that same alert is received on the iPhones owned by my father, sister, and my parents' next door neighbor.
Now imagine that 20 seconds after her fall, this same alert message is receive on the iPhone and office iPad/computer of my mother's physician.
Now are you interested in an iWatch? I am.
Last night I started think about innovation at Apple (or lack there of) after watching the latest Mac Break Weekly. Leo Laporte, the show's host, surmised that Apple is starting to lose the innovation race and is falling behind the likes of Google and Samsung. This got me thinking, and writing (and writing and writing...)
It seems strange that the reason we previously pushed so much praise upon Apple (that unlike other companies who often release crap and see what sticks against the wall, Apple takes its time developing new, innovative products and only announces and releases them when the products are finished and ready for general consumption) is now a reason we believe they have lost their innovative edge (unlike other companies that release new technologies and form factors at a blistering pace no matter how the market reacts, Apple still only has a sub-4-inch-screened phone).
Has Apple lost its reign as the king of innovation within the consumer technology sphere to the likes of Google and Samsung?
I believe the coming year of new wearable tech should provide an interesting foundation to compare how these three tech giants, Google, Samsung, and Apple, see themselves and their products as defining 'innovation' and compare and contrasts each company's go to market strategy as they compete to sell each of us on why their particular wearable technology not only deserves our purchase, but also our use on a daily basis.
Apple has excelled over the years in not only innovating and creating new product categories, but developing use cases and narratives that make each of use imagine and understand why owning such-and-such product would make sense for our own lives. This has lead Apple to large gains in mindshare and the movement of a massive amount of product. The iPhone's narrative was the fusing of the phone, iPod, and internet communicator, all wrapped up into one beautiful, large-screened device. You no longer needed to carry around two or three separate devices.
So what stories will be told to us for the wearables of the next 12 months?
Earlier this year we were introduced to Google Glass. Google chose to release Glass as a seemingly beta product, selling it at a high price to a very limited audience. Google's narrative for Glass is a compelling one: Glass is the ability to capture your life from eye level and share it with others. Snap photos of your child while swinging him in the air or have a Hangout while diving out of a plane. Google's wearable tries to not only replace some of the simple actions we currently perform with a smartphone, but to enhance the environment around us and record the environment around us to share with others. I believe it is a very compelling story to tell, but unfortunately it seems the product itself is far from suitable for use by the general public. My mother will never use Glass. I can barely see myself wearing one on a daily basis. While it seemed many tech pundits wore their Glass often the first week or two of ownership, most have resorted to leaving Glass on the bedroom shelf. Glass has very specific, highly interesting use cases (such as doctors wearing Glass during surgery, conducting a Hangout session with med students while they operate), but these clever use cases don't seem to parallel the need of most normal people as they go about their daily business. Plus you look legally ridiculous wearing it.
"We don't know what's going to happen here. As we start to experiment… being able to share what you're seeing live is really amazing." That was Sergey Brin during I/O while unveiling Glass. Innovation to Google is releasing a product that is not yet complete and usable to the general public but strives to someday connect us, our sight, our experiences, and our location to one an other. It's pie in the sky, and it allows Google to release future tech now and show their innovations before being fully baked. But it's not for me, not for the general public, and especially not for my mother.
Samsung Galaxy Gear
As of last night we have also been introduced to the 'innovative' Samsung and what it sees at the future of wearable technology: Galaxy Gear. This is Samsung preempting a possible Apple watch product and Samsung seems to have done what it does best: taking what others have done before it and injecting a ton of steroids. Perhaps this is Samsung's core innovation philosophy. The Gear is larger and packs much more technology within its chassis (and for that matter even the strap) than any 'smart watch' before it. It's big. I mean physically big.
For a new piece of technology that seems so big and clunky and short on battery life, Samsung needs to provide a coherent story as to why this product is of value to the normal smartphone (and non-smartphone) user and why this indeed represents true innovation and the future of wearable technology. I watched Samsung's UnPacked event live and was disappointed by the company's lack of a coherent narrative for the product. There was some mangled concept of 'Smart Freedom' which was never fully developed and the Gear demo was made up of scattered, barely stitched together pieces: Snap photos from your wrist!; See notifications!; Health apps!; Multiple color options! By the end of it, Samsung's plea amounted to, "we make really big phones that you may not always want to take out of your pocket, so here is a device so you don't have to."
Remember back to Steve Jobs unveiling the iPad; The iPad's stated reason for being was that in a life where you already have an iPhone and a MacBook, a tablet was a device worthy of existing because it could do a number of things better than either of those devices, such as casual email, reading, and media consumption. Steve Jobs even sat in a comfy chair for half of the presentation to prove his point. So the question is, just what does Galaxy Gear do so much better than a smartphone and a normal wrist watch to justify its being? The Galaxy Gear perfectly encapsulates innovation, Samsung style.
So now we get to Apple, who people seem to think has lost its ability to innovate. What could Apple do with an iWatch that I believe would be innovative and also create a compelling enough narrative to get me to purchase one?
Apple seems to be building up an experienced team to release some sort of wearable product within the next 18 months. Not only is Bob Mansfield back at Apple working engineering on special projects and Johnny Ive in charge of both hardware and software design, but Apple hasbrought back Paul Deneve, who was chief executive at Yves Saint Laurent and is now an expert in the fashion industry. Apple has also developed a Boston natural language laboratory and hired away many specialists from Nuance.
Most important I believe is Apple's hiring of Jay Balhnik, the 'guru' behind the Nike FuelBand. Tim Cook is on the board of Nike and loves his FuelBand, and I think this clearly demonstrates how important health and medical monitoring is going to be to the iWatch device, not only in terms of its functionality, but how it allows Apple to create a compelling story to show why the product is worthy of purchase.
Every science fiction nerd (at least me) dreams of a future with a medical tricorder - a hand-held device that can quickly scan the body and catalogue an entire library of important health and disease data. Blood pressure is good! No problems with cholesterol! Oh, but it may be time to get that other thing checked by the doctor...
Now imagine a device not from the future but from the present, a device that wraps around your wrist and not only acts as a fitness tracker (devices for which there are plenty), but also performs much more sensitive measurements such as for blood pressure, heart rate, blood oxygen, blood glucose, etc. (use your imagination) Then imagine this same device could take this measurable health data, cross reference it with other data from the device such as location and accelerometer data, and smartly analyze it for abnormalities and warning signs. Finally consider that this device is always online using bluetooth and the iPhone in your pocket.
Suddenly this device does more than just count how many calories you burned running in the park. It can identify if your body is undergoing (or about to undergo) trauma and warn not only you but your family and even possibly your doctor.
An example - You're from Florida and you take a ski trip to Colorado. You just got to the top of the mountain and you start to feel a little light headed. Suddenly your iWatch vibrates. You look down to see an alert that your blood oxygen level is dangerously low and you should get to a lower altitude as soon as possible to avoid developing altitude sickness. You quickly get up and get down the mountain as fast as you can, planning to visit the medical clinic at the base to see if you should continue skiing or now. Taking this example even further, imagine there was a way to register with the ski patrol when you bought your ticket that morning and granted them access to receive health alerts from your iWatch for the next 12 hours. In this scenario, the ski patrol will also receive the alert of your approaching altitude sickness and can respond quickly by dispatching a patrolman to your location to accompany you down the mountain.
This may be pushing the health concept too far, but I truly believe Apple is creating a wearable for the wrist and the narrative Apple will tell to sell this 'watch' will be medical in nature. Yes, you'll be able to see the time of day, see New York Times headlines, see simple notifications, see current weather, etc. But most importantly, the 'watch' will tell your mother and father if you're suffering from a heart attack.
I believe this is the difference between the types of innovation shown by Google, Samsung, and Apple, and why Apple is not yet doomed.
Google is getting better at telling compelling stories for their devices, but their ultimate innovative device, Google Glass, is itself still too niche and unsettling to make proper use of this narrative. Samsung innovation results in a huge wearable computer on your wrist that certainly does more than any wrist computer before it. But does it perform a function worthy enough for the general population to buy into, especially when it's so honking big?
Yes, Apple doesn't release a new phone every month, and its long rumor TV product is nowhere to be found, and a possible iWatch may be more than a year away. But I don't believe this means Apple is losing its ability to innovate. Apple is just waiting for the right time and the right narrative (and the right form factor - see below!) to make us buy one.
And maybe at the end of the day, that is Apple's ultimate innovation. It's not one of technical innovation, but of narrative innovation. Apple's products themselves are certainly technically innovative, but perhaps the most innovative part of Apple (compared to other technology companies) is its ability to tell a coherent narrative.
Mom, if you're reading this, know that come Christmas 2014 you're getting an iWatch. If you fall, I wanna know about it (even if I am half a world away).
The Physical Design of an iWatch
Why can't I stop writing? A quick little tangent about a thought I had while writing the above post. This tangent is about the iWatch's physical design. I've seen many iWatch concepts and almost all of them are based on the historical fundamentals of wrist watch making: the dial of the watch is always on top of the wrist, and the watch face is always perpendicular to the strap.
The first problem you must tackle when making this device is how to integrate the screen. As we have seen with the Galaxy Gear and similar devices, there is the potential that a moderately sized square screen combined with a real watch strap (a strap with no electronic components contained in it) will lead to a pretty chunky device (not only does the screen take up room but the electronic components must be housed below the screen, increasing the thickness of the watch face).
I believe Apple will want their 'watch' to be as sleek and minimal as possible, but how to do this? You would want a screen that does not take up too much width yet doesn't force lines of text to be too squished. Having the screen orientation be perpendicular to the watch strap (as almost every wristwatch is constructed) means there is very little width available to fit lines of text unless you enlarge the width of the screen, making for a large, more awkward watch face. It has been reported that Johnny Ive has expressed interest in curved glass displays. Making the screen parallel to the watch strap using an integrated curved display provides much more freedom for text to be read left to right (as we are accustomed to reading).
This brings me to Apple's central redefinement (not a real word but I like it) of the watch's basic design and how it will physically differentiate itself from the current class of smartwatches (much like how the iPhone differentiated itself from the physically-buttoned army of Blackberry's, Q's, and Blackjacks).
In this new digital age when we want to attach a computer screen to a watch strap, is on top of the wrist really the ideal location for a screen? I think there is a far better location for the screen, especially one that is parallel to the wristband.
Hold up your phone as you normally would when using it. What do you see below your phone? It's your palm and the underside of your wrist. Not only is the bottom of the wrist visible, but it is also parallel with your vision. Producing a watch whose screen is meant to be viewed on the underneath of the wrist, not on top of it, allows Apple to integrate a long, curved screen that is perfect for displaying long lines of text while keeping the device's width to a minimum. Using our phones on an hourly basis has already taught us to be comfortable with this physical position, and it will be from the underside of our wrists that the screen of the iWatch will rest.
Two additional benefits of this screen location: 1) Now the screen of the iWatch is visible even when you are using your phone in the same hand (which isn't possible with a screen/dial on top of your wrist), and 2) the accelerometer can sense when you turn your wrist over to look at the watch's screen, automatically turning the screen on to show the time. The screen can then be kept off when your wrist is facing down or at your side (while walking or standing), improving battery life.
That is all. Thanks for reading (or at least skimming).
(Below is a mockup. That is supposed to be the iWatch's screen. Sorry for the horrendous display of artistic talent.)