Innovation is problem-solving. Radical innovation is seeing normalcy as problematic, and solving it. That level of invention, which solves a generally unrecognized problem to create a new product category, or user experience, can be difficult to recognize in the conceptual stage. A far-reaching idea can seem trivial if it solves routineness. Sometimes it takes the product itself, the manifested experience, to demonstrate how to rise above the customary. Email solved postal mail, which died another incremental death last week by announcing a proposal to end Saturday letter deliveries. Cell phones solved the disconnect between phones and the walking-around life. Mobile apps solved the gap between computers and cell phones. Perhaps HTML5 will solve apps.
So forgive me if I'm being small-minded, but Bruce Tognazzini's speculative manifesto about an Apple iWatch fails to make a convincing futurist case for the imagined device -- despite whipping up a whirlwind of attention. What is the future of wearable computing?
With a knowledge of Apple-owned patents, and a professional expertise in product usability, plus a cultural understanding of Apple from his years working there (1978-1992), Tognazzini set conjecture in motion by writing about "The Apple iWatch development team that I expect exists." If you miss that crucial hypothetical you might suppose the article is about established product development -- everything is "will," not "might." Other sources report that Apple insiders confirm development of a curved-glass wearable device.
Tognazzini frames the innovation conundrum by acknowledging that most people don't want, or think they need, a smartwatch. His article strongly opposes such indifference, straight from the first sentence: "The iWatch will fill a gaping hole in the Apple ecosystem." That's a bold declamation. Gaping holes are major. Dial-up connection speed in the early days of the web -- that was a gaping hole; gradually closing it with increasingly fast modems drove adoption of the entire online ecosystem. As an innovation setup, Tognazzini is saying that normalcy (Apple's ecosystem) is broken and a smartwatch can fix it.
Tognazzini surveys existing smartstraps Cookoo, Pebble and Martian, and his chief complaints with existing devices are size (too big), and charging need. He's right, especially on the second point. Dumb watches don't need to be charged or wound, so smart replacements start by taking a step backward in that regard.
A handicap by itself isn't necessarily enough to kill an idea, a business or an industry. Cable TV chained television sets to the wall and made reception expensive. You might have thought those points would be dealbreakers. Even computers get away with malfunctions -- if cars crashed as often as computers they would be outlawed. Innovation sells through detriments if it provides enough added value.
This is where Tognazzini suffers a failure of imagination, and doesn't do Apple any favors in trying to stimulate interest in smartwatch usability concepts. The article is mostly interested in the iWatch as a device controller, much as the Pebble functions when paired with a portable music player. The post evangelizes "extend[ing] the capabilities of your other devices," but really seems to mean extending your distance from them. This vision is a play on convenience through miniaturization, like a Bluetooth headset freeing your hands from the phone. Here is that conundrum: Either normalcy is unbroken, or the value of fixing it is not apparent.
Intermediation is not truly groundbreaking
Intermediation is not truly groundbreaking. In addition to the general intermediary role of helping you manage your other portables, Tognazzini postulates "killer applications" that are not only mere go-betweens, but also puzzlingly trivial. The article froths with agitated exclamation points around the idea that an iWatch could log you into your iOS device, sans typed password, like a key fob for your car. I'm sorry to be harsh, but this is a truly uninspiring bit of futuristic imagination. Is this the gaping hole -- typed passwords? It's like proposing that someone is inventing fire, and the chief differentiating characteristic that will propel its adoption is a pretty orange color.
The article's second killer app is an iPhone location feature that simplifies the current Find My iPhone system that can track down a missing device anywhere in the world. Tognazzini's ecosystem-mending locator would find your phone anywhere ... well, in the house. My portable phone does that when I push a button in the base unit. It's nice. As I sit here thinking of how nice it is, my mind reflects on the history and quality of killer apps. Texting -- there's one. MP3 playback -- yes. The internet browser -- I do believe that app did some damage. Finding your phone in another room -- that's a killer app that doesn't even think unkind thoughts.
A third proposed killer app makes the iWatch an NFC payment enabler. That is a sensible, but marginal convenience gain over using an enabled phone to do the same thing.
If Tognazzini's iWatch vision is flat, it might be just a matter of emphasis. His article does touch briefly on health and fitness apps, and this is an area in which a smartwatch, and body-attached computing generally, might soar into a productive realm of differentiated innovation.
Medicine has been involved with technology for decades -- think pacemakers, cardiac shunts, artificial joints, time-release drug capsules and mountains of other untethered devices. In fact, these examples go beyond wearable tech to embedded and ingested tech. Emergent curative medicine might have been the inspiration for the Borg.
Medical technology is a B2B industry for the most part. Its customers are doctors and hospitals. Crossing into the consumer universe is either useless or illegal. Wearable tech like smartwatches can intersect with consumers at the juncture of personal health. Doing so is a perfect dovetail with two cultural trends: massively increased information flow around health and medicine, and a large boomer generation that wishes to live forever. The power of information meets the quest for immortality, and the smartwatch can play a role important enough to drive a market.
Tognazzini does get far-sighted in a brief rumination of possible health and fitness apps. He says in part, "People will write apps that will carry out other medical tests that will end up surprising us, such as tests for early detection of tremor [...] Because the watch is always with us, it will be able to deliver a long-term data stream, rather than a limited snapshot, providing insight often missing from tests administered in a doctor's office."
All in all, Tognazzini's iWatch meditation was more about filler apps than killer apps. He did not address a gaping hole in Apple's ecosystem. But he could address gaping holes in technology generally, and the personal ecosystems we build with it. Perhaps he will yet.
Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He doesn't wear a watch, and tells time awkwardly by looking at his phone.