When I was in college, a close friend of mine got a Blackberry. Though this was less than a decade ago, owning a smartphone was still fairly uncommon at the time. I distinctly remember telling him how crazy I thought it was that his phone buzzed every single time he got an email.
Fast forward to today and if my smartphone isn’t in my pocket or next to me I feel hopelessly disconnected. How did we get from there to here?
THE "TOO CONNECTED" EVOLUTION
First, the feeling of being disconnected without a smartphone happened surprisingly quickly at an individual level for early adopters. It turns out the benefits outweighed the annoyance I’d feared. Having an always connected computer in your pocket quickly rewires your own internal expectations.
Next, the rise of mobile computing led to an evolution in the apps and services we use. Most students today probably couldn’t imagine life without Instagram or SnapChat, neither of which make any sense at all unless they’re in your pocket all the time. With the increased connectivity came novel uses of the mobile platform, ones which were predicated on that connectivity.
Finally, the ubiquity of smartphones in mainstream life and work led to a change in social expectations. If I send you an urgent WhatsApp message, I expect some kind of response in short order. Why wouldn’t you have your phone on you, after all? The expectation is that you check it regularly and respond to notifications that matter from a host of channels.
Each step in this evolution reinforced the previous one, and underlying and enabling each was the improvement of the mobile platforms themselves. The hardware got faster but cheaper; sensors were added; the OSes evolved and added powerful APIs for developers to hook into; mobile data networks improved in speed, reliability, availability and price.
Today, almost everyone is attached to their phone, and though we may indulge in lamenting this fact from time to time, the truth is we all kind of love it and our lives are better for it.
BACK AT THE BEGINNING?
Enter Apple Watch, the company’s “most personal device yet.” The watch is a tiny computer you wear, one that physically taps your wrist when you get a notification, one that let’s you take a phone call or dictate a message just by lifting your arm.
Isn’t this a step too far?
After a couple of months with the watch, my take is we’re simply back at the beginning of the same cycle we went through with the smartphone.
Early adopters are already living out the first step- the rewiring of personal expectations. Getting notifications on your wrist and being able to quickly take action is less annoying than it sounds and actually very convenient. Suddenly, if I don’t have my watch on, I feel a bit of unease about my less-connected state.
Like last time around, there’s also no doubt that the devices themselves will get faster, cheaper, gain sensors and provide developers with lots of new opportunities. The question then is whether smartwatches reach the scale needed to progress to the next two phases.
Will we see novel uses of the smartwatch platform that simply wouldn’t work on a smartphone? (Here Apple Pay perhaps provides a hint at what these could look like: connectivity extends into the physical world). Finally, will social expectations themselves begin to bend as more and more people adopt smartwatches? Will paying by physically swiping a credit card eventually make you look as old fashioned as stopping to write a check in the grocery line?
Not necessarily. While I’ve articulated parallels to smartphone adoption, it’s important to understand there are some significant differences. The smartphone took two technologies everyone already agreed were great and brought them together: cellular phones and the internet.
The watch has a lot more convincing to do, and it’s possible it takes a lot longer than the smartphone to make the case. It’s also possible that enormous gravity of the smartphone ecosystem itself keeps smartwatches perpetually in their orbit- nice accessories that many people may own, but not a true platform in their own right.
I do think the convenience of wrist worn computers will eventually lead to their mainstream adoption, a host of novel uses for these devices interacting with the physical world, and finally a shift in social expectations that makes them indispensable. What’s not clear to me is how long it will take for this to occur, but my guess is it will be a slower launch than the meteoric rise of the smartphone.