One of my favorite quotes from Jony Ive is this one, from a 2012 Interview with the London Evening Standard:
Q: How do you know consumers will want your products?
Ive : We don’t do focus groups - that is the job of the designer. It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.
Ive expands upon this idea further during a 2013 interview with Charlie Rose (emphasis added):
I don’t think it’s the user or consumer’s job to imagine what the future could be, because what the future can be is so often afforded by technology. Something new can be new, because there’s some new technology or some new process. So unless you’re aware of what those processes and technologies are, how can you possibly know what’s possible?
- IPOD MOBILE PHONE — Even just a few days ago, I did not expect to see Apple announce a phone this week. But over the weekend I flip-flopped, and I now think it’s more likely than not. Not a VOIP phone that depends on Wi-Fi or anything like that, but an honest-to-god mobile phone. It seems like there has to be some sort of “Wow, I thought maybe Apple would announce a phone but I didn’t think they’d do it like this!” factor, but damned if anyone knows what it is. My wild unlikely-but-wouldn’t-it-be-cool-as-shit guess: that it’s not an iPod phone, but rather the introduction of a new mobile device OS.
It’s safe to say that we were all expecting, as Gruber calls it, an “iPod phone”1. Just watch the keynote, and pay attention to the audience reaction when Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone. Both the “iPod” and “phone” slides receive uproarious applause, while “internet communicator” gets a relatively tepid response. Ironically, it was the “internet communicator” (Multi-touch UI + ubiquitous networking + App Store) component that went on to define the modern computing era and leave a lasting impact on society. It was something we didn’t expect, because we didn’t realize it was possible.
Turns out, the “wild unlikely-but-wouldn’t-it-be-cool-as-shit guess” panned out.
It’s for this reason that I’ve been hesitant to speculate on Apple’s wearable plans. Much of the public thinking this year has positioned it as a “fitness tracking, heart rate sensing, notification delivering smartwatch and activity tracker”, but I feel that’s as myopic as expecting an “iPod phone”, before the iPhone. I don’t know exactly what Apple has up its sleeve and I have little knowledge as to what they could have developed, particularly as it pertains to breakthroughs in hardware engineering2.
Fortunately, more details have surfaced over the last few weeks and I think I’m better equipped to talk about this. Suffice to say, I think there’s more going on than just health tracking and notifications.
Over the last few weeks, the rumor mill has thrown out a few more use cases for the wearable device, in addition to health tracking. By my estimation, they are:
- HomeKit Integration
- Continuity (Handoff, seems very interesting here, where the wearable could store and physically transport your state as you physically move between devices)
You’re probably thinking “so what, a smartphone can do all of these things”. And you’re right, a smartphone can do all of these things, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do all of these things, in the same way that a smartphone isn’t the best device to write a report or watch a video on.
In the introduction video for the iPhone 5, Jony Ive says:
When you think about your iPhone, it’s probably the object that you use most in your life. It’s the product that you have with you have all the time.
He, of course, is correct. The smartphone is easily the most personal device we own today. It is our life in our pockets. It is our connection to the rest of the world. We take them with us and use them where ever we can.
Yet there is still a gap, there is still some friction. There are moments when we are without our phones. We can lose them. They can be stolen. On the less sinister side, we give them to other people to look at something, or to hold for us.
There is simply no guarantee that the person using a smartphone is the person to whom it belongs. That’s problematic when you look at use cases which benefit from stronger ties between a user’s identity and presence in the physical world. Use cases like health tracking, home automation, payments, and transitioning between devices. These use cases benefit from something better, something more omnipresent to the user than a smartphone.
So what is more personal than a smartphone? What is more omnipresent than your life in your pocket that goes with you almost everywhere? What device would literally go with you everywhere until you took it off? What device would be better for these use cases?
It’s a wearable device. A wearable device has the potential to be better at those key tasks than a smartphone because it’s literally with you all the time. It’s way more omnipresent than a smartphone. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of these use cases have been rumored for the iWatch3.
As we approach tomorrow’s event, I can’t help but think about the iPad introduction, the last time Apple entered a new product category. Specifically, the part of the keynote where Steve Jobs makes the core case for the iPad:
The bar is pretty high. In order to really create a new category of devices, those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks. They’re going to have to be far better at doing some really important things. Better than the laptop, better than the smartphone.”
Jobs enumerates those tasks and then says:
If there’s going to be a third category device, it’s going to have to be better at these kinds of tasks than a laptop or a smartphone. Otherwise, it has no reason for being.
Those last two sentences, to me, are the table stakes for the success of a new product category. If a product is not clearly, obviously better at some key tasks, then it has no reason to exist4. And that’s the sense I get from most of the existing wearables on the market today. These products5 don’t really consider or use the omnipresence of the form factor to do things better than a smartphone. As a result you have the general public voting “no” with their wallets and approaching the entire product category with a lot of skepticism. In other words, they’ve become a product category which no one thinks they want or need.
Call it wishful thinking, but I don’t think that will be the case much longer.
By which I mean an iPod, with a click wheel, that could make phone calls. ↩
Apple’s innovation on the hardware front (batteries, radios, sensors, input devices, etc.) has always seemed undervalued to me. The multi-touch UI on the iPhone is as much a triumph of hardware as it is software, and that took years of development to get right. ↩
So why all the emphasis on health tracking? I’d argue it’s the most obvious use case where a wearable beats a smartphone hands down, no questions asked. ↩
I could go on and say “Now, some people have thought that’s a smart watch. The problem is smartwatches aren’t better at anything. They’re slow, they have tiny displays, and they have clunky smartphone software and user interfaces, so they’re not better than a smartphone at anything, they’re just smaller. They’re just smaller, less capable smartphones.” ↩
For the record, I think fitness bands do deliver on this front. A FitBit/Jawbone is a better fitness tracker than an iPhone 5s because its always with you, while an iPhone isn’t. ↩