The Apple Watch and the Future of Technology

by Mike Shea on 12 September 2014

On 9 September 2014 Apple announced the Apple Watch and it left me scratching my head. My iPhone is the best piece of technology I've ever held in my hand. It lets me communicate with nearly everyone on the planet and learn just about any piece of information I care to learn. Using a smartphone is like living on another plane of existence, a plane of information and communication.

But the Apple Watch? I have no idea what benefit it really provides.

The Apple Watch as a Health Device

The most obvious benefit of the Apple Watch is as a health monitor. It measures steps, it measures stairs, it can even measure your pulse. That's all well and good but the new iPhone can also track stairs and steps without any additional accessory. There's also some sort of idea that if only we had enough data we'd all be healthy. Its as though knowing the amount of steps we walk every day and actually walking are the same thing. They're not. A lack of healthy information isn't our problem. The lack of willpower to exert ourselves when we don't need to and to deny ourselves calories we don't need to eat are our problems.

As a health device, the Apple Watch misses two huge functions that most health-focused customers would want: a music player and a sleep monitor. Most of the people I see running these days have an iPhone strapped to their arm connected to a set of earphones. As far as I can tell, the Apple Watch isn't focused on music. There's no headphone jack so the only way to listen to music is over a set of bluetooth headphones—yet another device you get to charge every night.

That leads to the lack of a sleep monitor. The Apple Watch might be able to monitor sleep but if the intent is to charge it every night, you likely aren't going to wear it at night. This makes it less useful than a Fitbit.

It seems to me Apple could have taken a better approach by combining an iPod Shuffle with a Fitbit and focused exclusively on a device that monitors activity and plays music when you don't want to lug around your phone.

The Apple Watch as a Devolved Device

Most of us have decided that, with a phone in our pocket, we don't really need to wear a watch anymore. It's a redundant device and an extra complication we don't need. Yet now Apple is bringing that device back again and we're left wondering why. Is it really too hard to pull our phone out of our pocket? We've already proven that once we stopped wearing our watches in the first place. Is a phone on its own simply good enough? Most of us have said yes the minute we've skipped bringing any other camera on our vacations.

The smartphone has consolidated dozens of devices into a single handheld computer and now we're to believe one aspect of that needs to be broken back out again? I just don't see it.

But What the Hell Do I Know?

I look at a device like the Apple Watch and have no idea how it actually benefits my life. It won't help me make things people love. It won't let me communicate with friends and family any better than I can with a phone. It doesn't look like a very good entertainment device. It won't magically help me lose 50 pounds. I don't see how the Apple Watch fits into my world.

But I feel much the same way about Facebook. I look at Facebook and I can't understand for the life of me how this thing is supposed to work. I have a wall. You have a wall. We can write on each other's walls. We can comment on the posts on each other's walls. We have a timeline as well that somehow shows parts of the things we have on our various walls. We can favorite things that may or may not appear on my wall or yours or both. I've written software for a living and I really have no idea how Facebook is structured. I'm not even going to touch the complications found in the privacy settings.

Yet I'm clearly wrong about Facebook. Over a billion people use Facebook. Friends who know and care little for anything else involving computers use Facebook every day. For many it is their primary method of communication with their friends and family. It is so ubiquitous that even after quitting Facebook I had to come back because I felt too cut off from my friends.

I could be just as wrong about the Apple Watch as I am about Facebook. I might not be able to see how it benefits my life but that doesn't mean it won't be a huge success. The older I get, the less my opinions match the opinions of the rest of the world and this may very well be the case.

The Future of Technology

One of the things that makes me happiest about being alive right now is watching technology surge forward. I love technology. I think it's the evolution of our species. I think we fundamentally changed as human beings the minute mobile phones reached across the world. I think the internet is the biggest human advancement in human history.

I also think we're on the edge of some fantastic breakthroughs in technology that might be just as advanced. There are two I often have on my mind: augmented reality and artificial intelligence.

The Oculus Rift and Google Glass are clumsy first steps towards the combination of physical reality and virtual information. Like the internet, augmented and virtual reality will feel like a completely new plane of existence. There are dozens of great experiments taking place in this field already from virutalized perceived spaces to mobile virutal headsets. I think, over the next ten years, this could be a huge change in the way we use technology to interact in the world.

Artificial intelligence is another area where technology could change our world. We're already beginning to see it used in daily life, although clumsily, with Siri and Google Now. If Apple, Google, and other technology companies continue to pour their resources into these systems we could see amazing improvements. They won't have to pass the turing test to be useful to us. Siri would be vastly more useful if it interconnected the apps we use regularly. Right now it accepts one command. The minute we can tie together two, three, or four commands in a row, we'll see huge changes in how we use our mobile devices.

The more predictive AIs become, the more useful they will be as well. When I get into my car, there's little reason my phone can't know where I'm likely going, who I likely want to talk to, or what I likely want to listen to and simply ask me if it should do it. We don't need to fall in love with it for it to change our lives and with distributed computing and mobile technology, I think we're on the cusp. I think AI may be coming fast and it will likely change us forever.

If I were Tim Cook for a year, I would invest almost everything I had into improving Siri. That said, Apple is behind when it comes to understanding how to harness distributed technology. Apple is a hardware company first and I think Apple is lagging behind on the quality of back-end software. Google understands back-end software much better and may be much further along in the AI space. After all, Google uses Bayesian filtering the way Microsoft uses the "if" statement.

The Apple Watch Will Sell Fewer Than 1 Million Watches in 2015

As much as I doubt my own ability to predict success or failure of technology, I will draw a line in the sand. I think the Apple Watch will sell far less than the iPad and certainly the iPhone. It's beautiful, at least to some. I'm sure it works well. I just don't see what it does that anyone really wants. I see people running through the park every day with iPhones strapped to their arms. They want two things: health tracking and music. Unless they all upgrade to bluetooth headsets, they're not going to get the latter and Fitbit makes stuff far cheaper for the former that already works really nicely with an iPhone. As far as I can tell, there is nothing the Apple Watch does that an iPhone can't do and, as a pocket computer, the iPhone is already very convenient.

In 2007, the year of the iPhone's release, Apple sold 1.39 million iPhones. In 2010, the release year of the iPad, Apple sold 14.9 million iPads. I expect Apple to sell less than a million Apple Watches in 2015. I don't expect more than a million sales in 2016 either. In 2017, Apple will either transform the Watch into something we acutally want or scrap the line completely.

What Tim Cook and the Apple executives will do if it sells poorly? Will they admit they made a mistake? Will they double down and keep hoping? What stage are they at along the five stages of decline in Jim Collins's How the Mighty Fall? We'll have to wait and see.

The Apple Watch, however, feels a lot like grasping for salvation and I think there is no salvation there to grasp.

John Gruber's Take on the Apple Watch

The best writer on all things Apple had some very interesting things to say in his initial thoughts about the Apple Watch and brings up a fantastic quote by Andy Warhol that captures how I've felt about the iPhone recently:

"What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."

It's amazed me that the richest people in America use the same phone as some of the poorest full time workers in the country and it's the best piece of technology consumers have ever had their hands on. You can't pay a million dollars and get a phone even five times better than an iPhone. Regardless of how much we make, if we make a full-time living wage, we can buy the best piece of personal technology ever created. That's pretty profound.

And, as Gruber points out, the Apple Watch isn't in this category. If you read through Gruber's whole article, and you should, you will see that he never really digs into what this watch offers us for the money. Really, what the Apple Watch comes down to, is a status symbol. Unlike the iPhone, it may very well be nothing more than a marker of wealth.

Riding the Lazy River of Technology

I wrote this post because I want to set a marker in the sand when it comes to the Apple Watch. I wrote it because I might be spectacularly wrong and that will be a fun thing to see. I might also be disappointingly correct in my assumption that the Apple Watch offers us no real benefits in our lives. That said, I'm enjoying every day where I can watch technology expand our lives, help us connect with friends and loved ones, and help us create and enjoy a wonderful world.