The technology industry has begun its next shift. The watch will displace the phone as the primary digital tool, and this shift will accelerate the connection of every human being to the Internet. It also has the potential to change one of the longest-standing aspects of modern civilization.
Expensive, large, and fragile.
The personal computer of today is the phone. It has shrunk and migrated from the desk to the pocket. However the phone still retains many of the drawbacks of the devices that have preceded it.
Phones are expensive. Whether measured by the price of the device itself or by the subsidized price of purchasing one with connectivity, they represent a significant cost to the user. There are affordable options, and compared to desktops and portables phones are a bargain, but the phone’s nature as a do-anything device commands a high price.
Phones are large. Though they are small enough to fit into a shirt pocket or a purse and temporarily disappear when not in use, phones must be large enough to serve a variety of purposes, and thus they require conscious effort to manage both when in use and not. They must be held in the hand (sometimes two) in order to be used, something which is often at odds with the user’s other activities and environment.
Phones are fragile. To some degree this is a result of their portability and the behavior of carrying them everywhere; no computer to date has had to stand up to the myraid of dangers the world poses to a piece of electronics. But their construction is also inherently delicate; slabs of glass and metal are not well-suited to the relative harshness of human life. And while all manner of solutions have been developed to protect phones from these dangers, they are all attempts to mitigate the limiations inherent to their design.
Needy and interdependent.
In addition to the physical drawbacks of phones, they also have high infrastructure demands. Perpetual network connectivity is required to enable much of a phone’s value, and that connectivity is both costly and brittle; users must afford monthly fees to utilize networks that struggle to meet the demands every user places on them. Phones also have an appetite for electricity that is rarely (and only temporarily) satiated. Large displays and nearly constant usage mean that phones are not useful for long before requiring hours of charging in order to continue serving the user’s needs.
And most if not all the criticisms of the phone can be levied in one form or another against every other device to date. Desktop computers are expensive, large, and stationary. Portable computers are even more fragile than their desktop counterparts and make significant sacrifices in functionality in order to not be stationary. Tablets offer an enticing middle ground between phones and more traditional devices, but they suffer from the same drawbacks the phone does, and the qualities which differentiate them exacerbate these limitations.
There is a trend amongst some users to rely exclusively on the phone, but this is unlikely to continue to the point where larger viewports or precision input cease to be useful. If anything, the user’s different goals neccessitate moving effortlessly from device to device, and the industry is clearly motivated to grow the services that enable this flexibility. The result of this is that as the goals of the user increase, the necessity of a variety of devices grows along with them.
Small, immediate, and available.
The watch today is extremely limited in contrast to the phone; it requires the phone for compute, storage, and connectivity. But just as the phone has developed such strengths, so too will the watch. Moreover, the watch has inherent advantages that the phone will never have.
The watch is small. It is inconspicuous enough to be worn and therefore forgotten about when not in use. The watch is also significantly more durable than a phone, because it must be. It is exposed to the outside world and therefore must stand up to all the movement and action that the user’s body goes through. Thus the danger of damaging or misplacing the watch is essentially removed, and it will move closer toward invisibility than the phone could ever do.
The watch is immediate. It is available both more quickly and more briefly than the phone, which must be stored safely between uses. And because it is physically attached to the user, what the watch is used for is more intimate. The experience is designed exclusively for the user; it does not lend itself to being shared intentionally, nor being peered at by onlookers.
The watch is available. As an extension of the user’s hand it is as capable of interacting with anything else as the user is. Any other nearby device is more naturally put into contact (physical or not) with the watch. It can easily interact with any other device whether portable or stationary.
Service, interface, and utility.
The watch today requires a phone. Yet the reasons for this requirement are the easiest to envision the watch overcoming. There are issues of connectivity and compute and storage, but these are straightforward engineering challenges that will undoubtedly be met.
The elements of software which make the watch compelling do not depend on the device, but rather the service. Be it messaging, commerce, or entertainment, the device that delivers an experience to the user is just that; the delivery mechanism. Some experiences require resources the watch may never fully address, but it is the service layer that ultimately enables the experience. Without access to the other elements connected to the network, any device’s value is significantly diminished, worn or not.
When the watch connects the user to every other device in their environment, it becomes the interface to the rest of the ecosystem. That interface can provide authentication to any other device the user may need to interact with, be it for a moment or an extended period. These interactions can be as brief as unlocking a door or authorizing a payment, or as extended as producing complex work or conducting a long conversation.
Any device the user requires to perform a task can therefore be made available without it having to belong to the user. The variety of devices a user may want or need to interact with can remain varied, and the most appropriate device can be made available to the user as needed. And because the appropriate device is only required for the duration of an experience, many devices can become shared. The user does not need to take on the burdens of owning each of them, but can instead utilize them and then move on and make room for the next user.
Technology for everyone.
When devices can be designed with shared or public purposes in mind, the costs of production, operation, and service can all be shifted away from the user. Many of today’s devices are already designed for multiple users, and devices that require new degrees of durability, longevity, or utility can be designed to those goals. Whether calling home from a cafe, or doing work in an office, or enjoying television on a train, the user will only require the watch in order to connect them to the wider ecosystem of devices available in those environments.
The value of connecting every human being to the Internet is well accepted, yet devices today pose high barriers to achieving this goal. The watch’s nature as the most personal device will drive down the barriers to entry for anyone who may benefit from the complete technology ecosystem. The watch will fit into the life of any human being in a way no other device can. And its unique characteristics can address some of the deep-rooted aspects of our culture that have thus far prevented connecting everyone. The watch is a device that can change the way we think about the ownership of the tools we rely on, and bring us closer to unlocking all of technology’s advantages for every person on the planet.