Entelligence: Putting a spotlight on the invisible

Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

When Apple refreshed the latest version of the iPod nano, the combination of the square form factor, touch display, clip and cool clock app made me think it would make a great watch. I was not alone. I've already seen a number of vendors scrambling to create straps and wrist cases for the nano. While Apple stopped well short of calling it a watch replacement, there's no doubt Cupertino will be looking carefully to see if there's an iWatch in your future.

From Microsoft's Smart Personal Object Technology devices to watches that ran Palm OS, vendors have tried and failed to push high-tech watches every few years. I personally think the watch space and the larger invisible space hasn't been exploited properly beyond the core feature of telling time. Here's why.

It's important to understand the there are different mobile spaces, as I've discussed in the past. Here's a quick refresher of the five critical mobile device categories I've come up with and what they mean -- there's a huge gap between things that go in your bag or case and things that are pocketable or invisible.

  • Stuff you can't carry: desktop computers, large screen TVs. That is, not mobile at all.

  • Stuff that needs its own bag: business projectors. This appears to be a rapidly dying category.

  • Stuff that goes into your bag: laptops and large media players.

  • Stuff that fits into your pocket: cell phones, cameras, MIDs.

  • Stuff that's invisible: watches, key chains, clothing. Why invisible? These are all objects that fall below our threshold of awareness -- we forget that we're even carrying them.

Ever lose your keys? It's usually because you carry them without thinking and something broke the pattern of where you put them. How do you find them? You retrace your steps from the invisible (your subconscious) to the visible (your conscious). That's why often the first question you ask is "where's the last place I remember having them?"

It's the invisible that I find the most interesting and where I think we'll see renewed interest in the near term -- even though vendors are adding larger screens to small devices and actually making them less ubiquitous and certainly very visible.

Invisible devices like watches are the digital equivalent of undeveloped beachfront property. It's there and available but it's being ignored. The power of the invisible is that it frees up space for other gadgets users might want to carry -- and most people will carry more than one invisible device.This in turn, creates a wonderful gap that is not yet being exploited by vendors: an iPod that doubles as watch means there's now one more visible device I can carry.

I expect we'll see further attempts here, especially in phone-based watches. Cell phones were at one time entering the invisible zone but that changed with the trend towards larger devices with more functionality. While I don't think there's a real future for the watch phone, think about what adding Bluetooth to an iPod nano that's worn as a watch could provide in terms of value. A whole new level of notifications could be created, for example. It might have been an accident, or it might have been by design, but Apple's brought new light to the invisible space.

Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.