Smartwatches: Coming Soon to a Cosmos Near You

This is a column I did for the BBC World Service, broadcast this week. 

There’s been a lot of talk that the big boys — by which I mean Apple and Samsung — are about to launch so-called smart watches. But how smart does a watch have to be before we start strapping them to our wrists in numbers to make a difference?

First off, a confession. I’ve strapped a few things to my wrist in my time. Back in the 80s and 90s I used to love the Casio calculator watch called the Databank, though I can’t actually recall ever doing a calculation on it or putting more than a few phone numbers in there. About a decade ago I reviewed something called the Fossil Wrist PDA, a wrist-bound personal digital assistant. It didn’t take off. In fact, no smart watch has taken off.

So if the smartwatch isn’t new, maybe the world around them is? We’ve moved a long way in the past couple of years, to the point where every device we have occupies a slightly different spot to the one it was intended for. Our phones, for example, are not phones anymore but data devices. And even that has evolved: the devices have changed direction in size, from shrinking to getting larger, as we realise we want to do more on them.

That in turn has made tablets shrink. When Apple introduced the iPad Steve Jobs famously said that was the smallest the tablet could reasonably go, but Samsung proved him wrong with the phablet, and now we have an iPad Mini. All this has has raised serious questions about the future of the laptop computer and the desktop PC.

But it shouldn’t. For a long time we thought that the perfect device would be something that does everything, but the drive to miniaturise components has actually had the opposite effect: we seem to be quite comfortable moving between devices and carrying a bunch of them around with us.

This all makes sense, given that our data is all stored in the cloud, and every device is connected to it either through WiFi, a phone connection or Bluetooth. We often don’t even know how our device is connecting — we just know it is.

So, the smartwatch optimists say, the time is ripe for a smartwatch. Firstly, we’ve demonstrated that we are able to throw out tired conventions about what a device should do. If our phone isn’t really our phone anymore then why not put our phone on our wrist? Secondly, the cloud solves the annoying problem of getting data in and out of the device.

Then there’s the issue of how we interact with it. It’s clear from the chequered history of the smartwatch that using our digits is not really going to work. We might be able to swipe or touch to silence an alarm or take a call, but we’re not going to be tapping out messages on a screen that size.

So it’s going to have to be voice. GeneratorResearch, a research company, reckons this would involve a small earpiece and decent voice-command software like Apple’s Siri. I’m not convinced we’re quite there yet, but I agree with them that it’s going to take someone of Apple’s heft to make it happen and seed the market.

In short, the smart watch might take off if it fits neatly and imaginatively into a sort of cosmos of devices we’re building around ourselves, where each one performs a few specific functions and overlaps with others on some. If it works out, the watch could act as a sort of central repository of all the things we need to know about — incoming messages, appointments, as well as things the cloud thinks we should know about, based on where we are: rain, traffic jams, delayed flights.

But more crucially it could become something that really exploits the frustratingly unrealised potential of voice: where we could more easily, and less self-consciously, talk to our devices and others without having to hold things to our ear, or be misunderstood.

In time, the smartwatch may replace the smartphone entirely.

I’m not completely convinced we’re as close as some think we are, but I’ve said that before and been proved wrong, so who knows?

Smarter smartphones for smarter people

This is a piece I wrote for the BBC World Service..

So, the iPhone 5 is here, and while it will sell well, probably better than any phone before it, there’s a sense of anticlimax: this, we are told, is evolution, not revolution. None of the mind-bending sense of newness and change that the iPhone and iPad used to engender. This is a sign, we’re told, that the market is mature, that there’s not much more that can be done.

I’d like to suggest another way of looking at this. For sure, not every new product that comes out of Apple HQ can blow our minds. But that doesn’t mean the mobile device is now doomed for a stodgy and reliable plateau of incremental improvements, like cars, washing machines or TVs.

In fact, quite the opposite. The world of the mobile device has already made extraordinary changes to our world, and we’re only at the start of a much larger set of changes. Our problem is that we’re just not very good judging where we sit amidst all this upheaval.

Consider these little factlets from a survey conducted last year by Oracle. At first glance they seem contradictory, but I’ll explain why they’re not.

More than half of those surveyed thought their mobile phone would replace their iPod/MP3 player by 2015. A year later when they asked them again, a third said it already had. Oracle found more or less the same was true of people’s global positioning systems, or GPS.

Then there’s this. More than two thirds of the people surveyed said they use a smartphone, and of those people, 43% have more than one.

In other words, more and more functions that used to be a separate device are now part of our mobile phone. And yet at the same time a significant chunk of users have more than one mobile phone.

What this means, I think, is that we are integrating mobile phones into our lives in a way that even those who spend time researching this kind of thing don’t really get. In fact we’ve integrated them so much we need two.

That’s because, of course, they’re not really phones: they’re devices that connect us to all sorts of things that we hold dear, whether it’s social, work or personal.

But there’s still a long way to go. The device of the future will make everything more seamless. A company in Thailand, for example, allows you to use your smartphone to open your hotel door, tweak the room lights and air con, order food and switch TV channels.

In other words interact with your surroundings. Some via connected devices, from air conditioning units to washing machines, from street signs to earthquake sensors. Other services will sift piles and piles of big data in the cloud, and push important information to us when we need it. Google already has something called Google Now which tries to anticipate your problems and needs before you do: a traffic jam up ahead, a sudden turn in the weather, a delayed flight.

Devices will also interact with the disconnected world, measuring it for us — whether it’s our blood sugar levels or the air quality. Sense movement, odors, colors, frequencies, speed. It may even, one day, see through walls for us.

So our smart phones are just starting to get smart. We’re already smart enough to see how useful they can be. The bits that are missing are the technologies that blend this all together. This could still take some time, but don’t for a moment think the mobile world is about to get boring.

Ending the Tyranny of the Telephone

How do we deal socially with the new technology around us? How do we come up with new norms, wrestle with the loss of privacy, deal with the way technology seems to force us to change the way we live, work and communicate,?

It’s not a new question, but I feel we need a new answer. We tend to focus on the intrusiveness of new technologies, and agonise over how they’re changing society, while failing to notice that the old technologies were just as intrusive. In fact, I’d argue that with each advance of communication technologies, they get less intrusive rather than more.  Our problem is that we have memories the size of hamster droppings.

Imagine a device that dominates every desk, every home, is on every street corner and train platform. Where we are so conditioned to answer its call we get upset when it’s left to ring. Even when we’re eating, praying, watching TV, asleep. Where we are expected to identify who we are, where we are to a disembodied voice at the other end, to run off searching for someone at its behest, jot down messages on its behalf.

Yes, of course I’m talking about the telephone. An awful device that intruded upon our conversations, our reverie, our concentration, our world. What is remarkable, then, is not how much we’ve submitted to technology but the speed with which we’ve embraced a different technology that better suits our world.

As quickly as technology allowed it, we have started ditching the idea of getting each other’s attention through voice. First we adopted the cellphone, but when users figured out they could use it to send messages by text or SMS instead, the telephone as a predominantly voice-driven device was doomed. It’s not that we don’t want to talk to people; it’s just that we want to ensure that the time and place are  convenient for both of us.,

The truth is that the telephone imposed its tyranny on us and dominated our lives so much that we still can’t let go of the idea. We still call our mobile devices ‘phones’ even when that’s no longer what they’re primarily designed to do. (I have a mobile phone that is as big as a croissant; this was not something that the ubiquitous ads touting its glories will ever show being held up  to the ear.)

Now, in 2012 most mobile phones are not used as phones primarily — if at all. Australians, for example, are making 12.5% fewer phone calls than five years ago. People have been giving up having a landline phone: South Africa’s Telkom, for example, has lost more than a quarter of its fixed line customers since 2000.  We have thrown off the shackles of a 140 year tyranny remarkably quickly, realising just how intrusive the telephone was.

Yes, we’ve replaced it with technology that can be antisocial. We download a lot of data over our device, and much of that data is personal, for our eyes only, or gaming with others not present. We ignore those we’re with, preferring the absorption of the small screen to the social complexity around us. But we’ll figure this out. First, we had to deal with the tyrant. Nowadays, in this mobile spring, look around you differently: listen for the absence of ringing phones. For once we have the technology — SMS, the instant message, the tweet, the email–to retrieve our lives.

My croissant sized phone, for example? It has a feature that, when I turn it over, mutes all incoming calls and sounds. Now that’s civilized.