I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.
Wayne Gretzky sold himself short. He had the experience to figure out where the puck was going, but sport at the highest level is much deeper. He managed to skate where the puck would be, but he was working through where to put so as to impact the game more than a play ahead. We take delight watching players of this caliber in sport - they are transcending athleticism and adding something special to the game.
I found myself thinking about that during the Apple event on Tuesday. I don't know if Apple is creating a future path, but they are clearly thinking a few steps out. I sent a quick note to a few people and have been thinking about it a bit more.1 The watch is a watch in the sense the iPhone is a mobile phone. In the beginning it will be misunderstood by those who frame the new in historical context in terms of what came before. They watching a patch of ice they think is relevant based on the past move.
At the end of the 90s a few of us were working on what seemed to be a likely future. We knew we'd have portable computing devices, digital cameras, gps, and a wireless connection to the Internet.2 This turned into a project we called Air Graffiti. A prototype was built that could geo and time locate messages. The idea turned out to be rich with dozens of fascinating use cases emerging. Demonstrations could best be described as fun. The audience would become animated and inventive on their own - I've never been involved anything before or after that engaged an audience like that.
The problem was we were far too early on the hardware side. Our prototype was put together with piano wire and chewing gum. We knew what we needed, but getting there was going to take other groups and nearly a decade.
Horace Dediu noted the iPhone had there use propositions when it was first described - an iPod, a phone, and a Internet communicator. These tentpoles are used to generally describe something even though it is likely to grow well beyond those uses. Tim Cook introduced the watch as three things - an accurate watch, a very personal communicator, and a health and fitness device. All are interesting and all enter a field of problematic existing solutions.
Apple has done something extraordinarily challenging. I won't go into the fashion angle other than stating it is fascinating and requires very deep resources that are going to be difficult to duplicate. I'm not the one to judge how successful that component is, but note they have developed a wearable radio enabled computational module. A watch form factor is an obvious first step, but we're talking about something much richer than that.
I found myself thinking about Air Graffiti
One of the more interesting use cases of Air Graffiti was machine to machine communication with a roving device. We were worried about automation and worker knowledge on the factory floor. Wiring old factories is enormously expensive and, even if you do that, getting at the social experience of workers is a daunting problem. Battery power was going to be necessary for much of this and conventional wireless networks and direct Internet connections were too expensive and often undesirable for security reasons.
What we came up with was using very low power radios that could run for years on a battery - or even by harvesting energy from light, radio waves or vibrations. They would communicate with a roving device that had storage and perhaps some processing power. Something like a smartphone. That device could have a connection to a local network or perhaps to the Internet proper for future analysis. I had been thinking about a similar radio network system a few years before and called these little ephemeral networks ground fogs.3
The watch, or similar devices based on the module, can link to thousands of very inexpensive Internet of Things devices. It becomes an enabler that solves issues related to the cost of powering these devices and communicating with them. It might allow you to go from a few tens of billion devices to a trillion and do it explosively. A smartphone could do it, but it isn't as convenient - you aren't always carrying it. Jewelry or something you wear is much more natural. It can do some local processing, store information and pass along time insensitive commands and then link with something like an iPhone for more involved processing and a link to the Internet if required.
The best camera is the one you have with you. Smartphones have turned all of us into photographers. The same is true of communications and video. The best screen is the one you have with you. Something over half of non-telephone smartphone use takes place in the home. Most people probably have much better screens in the house, but the convenience of something you carry is too great. The watch might play in this space.
I was somewhat frustrated with the unveiling - it wasn't a clear as the old Jobs presentations. The three tentpoles Horace identified were there, but the communication wasn't as crisp as I would have liked and a number of other use cases were described - perhaps more to spark app builders than interest potential buyers. I also had the feeling the visual part of the interface has not been properly honed at this point, but this is just a comment from the peanut section as I have never used one. But the potential past the three early uses is enormous. Executing on that will be challenging - much of the path will have to be made up on the fly. But Apple has done that before. I'd give them better than even odds.
In the meantime they can ramp up production and make something that won't add that much to their bottom line initially, but they'll be learning how to grow beyond the tentpoles. In talking with some fashion people I have the sense that it should find a big enough niche to survive and even thrive a bit in the beginning. I'm still learning much more about that area which is at least as fascinating as the tech side.
1 The note slightly with some of the personal bits edited out:
WWDC struck me as a much more dramatic event as it set forth foundational work that gave a pretty good view of the next 3 or more years. This was no slouch. The phones were the least newsworthy. I’m at my upgrade cycle and need to decide if I want the larger model and perhaps get rid of my lust for Sukie’s iPad mini. I would like to try reading a book on it and see if the size disadvantage disappears. There is this little issue of pocket size - I got in touch with Waterfield Designs to see what they have in mind:-) I’m sure 3x1 could come up with something that has appropriate pockets, but my pockets and sense of personal style are not deep enough.
The payment scheme struck me as something that may or may not take off - like some Apple products it will take a few years to find out. The identification aliasing is a neat feature, but I want to chat with Steve Bellovin or Bruce Schneier first. There may be a pony in there, but there are some externalities that muddy the water.
The iPhone rather than the watch is probably the fitness tracker killer - it just was improved (in theory - need to see tests) and disappeared into the phone.
The Apple Watch is most interesting for a variety of reasons. Over the years I’d had epiphanal experiences with solutions to vexing problem that seemed obvious in retrospect - in fact that is the nature of my field. In tech I’ve had that experience a few times over the years including a few small personal triumphs. But in retrospect they sometimes seem uninspiring as technology is sedimentary in nature. When Apple announced the iPod I saw a beautiful solution to an interface problem we had been picking away at for some time. I’ve seen that in other areas. People who haven’t been toiling away in the area often dismiss these solutions as useless - it takes time for them to be accepted. I led the line at one of two Apple Stores in NJ to buy an iPod - our store opened up at 6:30a, so I probably had one of the first production models on the East coast. Five of the first group at that store were people in my HCI department.
I haven’t been working on watch interfaces so I’m not an appropriate judge. People working with conventional devices will probably see it as laughable and a non-threat. The folks to talk to are those who are working on the same problem. This is is a tough one - you need serious resources to solve it as a usable product. I suspect a lot of wizard of oz work has been going on at Apple and many competitors.
Tomorrow I’m going to be talking to some fashion and tech fashion types. Some of these have been working at the tech and fashion intersection. It is going to be too easy for the conventional guys to dismiss this and one has to carefully balance what Horace would call the job(s) to be done with the aesthetics of personal taste and the out of band signaling that fashion and style communicates. The conversations should be fascinating - I’ll give a high level summary as I can as it is for a client - basically scenario construction.
I’m not a fashionista, but fashion is something that has been an increasing fascination over the past five or six years - more from an anthropological and social direction than business. There is a lot of segmentation and it is common to have successful and very orthogonal products in the same sector. There has been a huge shift over the past 20 years and there are many areas ripe for disruption. The connection of computation with apparel has been around for awhile - notably fitness trackers which are almost uniformly inadequate and inaccurate. It is possible to build a good one, but not at a reasonable price until possibly now. There are some very interesting health tracking issues to see how these are used and misused - no time to go into them deeply, but basically the science is not that well understood and people pick different heuristic models. But directional heuristics are probably good enough for some things - I’m very curious to see how Apple is dealing with that.
One comment on one dimension of scenarios that I find increasingly useful - namely to look where on ‘the stack’ a company focuses and products are aimed. Not that the stack (somewhat fluffy and an adaptation of the old OSI model) is solidly defined, but Apple tends to have low stack strengths and Google, FB and others are high stack. Each has their pluses and minuses and companies tend to explore away from their expertise, but I’ve noticed people with high stack views of the world discount low stack approaches and visa versa (there was something similar in the old AT&T and the phrase “bell shaped head’ comes to mind). Apple is clearly playing to its low stack advantage - although that was even more solidly defined during WWDC.
Now if there were only more details on the inner workings of the phone. mWh/g and mWh/cm3 are battery drivers - most more than $/Wh. Any battery is a compromise of characteristics and this one probably uses a different chemistry than laptop and phone batteries. Factor of two or three improvements are possible in the next decade, but how they will be distributed is unclear. So many questions...
I asked Jheri to look at the watch video and comment. . She mentioned some segments that will go for it and suggested an interesting market to understand is the women’s handbag market which is trimodal plus that happens to be a functional piece of fashion that usually has a 2 to 4 year life for women. She suggested thinking about it as a watch is misleading and notes she carries a pocket watch with a clear back. She also notes that good fashion is marked by people who love a design while others (possibly a larger group) hate it. The trick is to make it part of your style - something she notes is better appreciated and executed in Europe - particularly France and Italy. And there is fashion that causes pain but is still off-scale desirable to some segments as other benefits dominate. ‘any woman who claims Louboutin shoes are comfortable for more than ten paces is lying’….
One final note - I’ve now heard from a couple of sources about extensions to the Ive lab that are fascinating. Since I don’t know how true they are I won’t go farther other than to note there may be a lot of hands-on experience going on to learn about materials and their properties - some of it far away from what Apple does, but cross disciplinary learning experiences. Apple has certainly been making mid-level and artist market hires in the past year or two. That is probably as significant as their high level hires.
2 About five years ago I began to refer to such camera functionality as networked lenses - a better term than camera is needed as they have pushed the social boundaries of what photography means. It didn't catch on, but we need a new term.
3 The use of the term cloud precedes the Internet. As it emerged the Internet was called an IP cloud by some of us Bell Labs. The notion of a fog seemed like a reasonable extension. There are large advantages to not doing this in the cloud.
Pure simplicity this time. I found some amazing baby spinach and arugula. After cleaning and drying it I came to the conclusion that a fancy salad would only detract, so I brought out the really good oil and balsamic vinegars.
When you are cooking something you don't need the best, although real extra virgin olive oils make a difference. I only use the amazing stuff for finishing as it tends to be spendy.
For the dressing I start with three parts oil and one part vinegar. This is estimated and I vary it a bit as each oil and vinegar are so different. I used Frantoia EVOO and Villa Manodori Artigianale balsamic vinegar (extremely expensive by the standards of my wallet, but worth it for very special meals)
The simple little salad was brilliant and rendered the very good dinner that accompanied it almost forgettable.