Apple Watch and the age of glanceability

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Apple execs seemed pretty excited about the new Apple Watch, but there are still plenty of people that think that consumer electronics companies obsession with watches is akin to 3D TVs — chasing innovation for innovations sake. They are likely wrong.

Back at Ambient Devices in 2001 as we were thinking about the future of our products & glanceable computing we used to have a chart that had “real-time need” on one axis and “glanceablility” on the other axis. I thought of that graph today as Apple announced their watch.

A platform is nothing without its core uses, and despite showcasing a plethora of apps it seems they spent a majority of their energy on three uses:

1. Payment, with the announcement of Apple Pay.

2. Health, with applications for both casual users and fitness buffs. Plus light sensors to read heartrate and blood flow.

3. Communication, with a series of innovations to try and push the watch out of “read only” mode. This included added emoji-texting, a new tap/swipe/heartbeat language, and analyzing text in an sms for one click responses.

It’s hard to say which of these, if any, will be killer apps without actually using them, but they all have one thing in common… combining a real-time need that can be solved at a glance.

When skeptics talk about not really needing or wanting a smart watch “because they have their phone” this reminds me of folks who didn’t think they needed a smart phone because they have a laptop. You absolutely could have used Instagram, Uber, Google Maps, and Postmates in a pre-mobile world — in fact their analogs existed in many cases — but the immediacy of the phone and its sensors made mobile phones the perfect instantiation of these ideas. Taking them from merely interesting to truly magical.

Similarly, for applications where seconds matter, context is important, and the problem can be solved at a glance there is a disruptive new platform — your wrist.

As for Apple’s core three applications, I’m probably most excited about the innovation in communication. Payment has the largest potential of course, as grabbing my phone to pay isn’t much better than grabbing my wallet, but Apple Pay relies on NFC and I’m skeptical they will be the one’s to finally crack that particular nut. The health and wellness products are wonderfully designed, but they didn’t really focus on realtime feedback and coaching as much as they probably should to warrant being on your wrist. Meanwhile the communication innovations seem like subtle but potentially important ways to make you feel more connected throughout the day.

Of course, chances are that there are use cases still around the corner that will ultimately what we love the Apple Watch for. For me Foursquare is one perfect example, where getting a quick tip as I walk into a restaurant is much more compelling than digging into my pocket (it was my favorite Pebble feature when I was using that product). Remembering people’s names is another, and I imagine a Refresh-like app will flourish on the Apple Watch. And there are going to be many more.

Which is all to say that I’m excited that Motorola, Google, Samsung, and now finally Apple are attacking this. All the potential use cases will not be immediately intuitive, but that is what is going to give a whole new generation of startups a fighting chance on a brand new platform.

(thanks to Bijan for being my sounding board on this one. this was originally a rant during our podcast this week, but the audio was lost to a badly timed crash while saving)