Thursday, 12 September 2013

Watch Your Phone

The launch of the iPhone 5S and 5C has been greeted with a general "meh", once it became clear the C stood for colour rather than cheap, and the 5S's only new feature was a fingerprint reader. This rather misses the strategic significance of the latter, which is less about addressing the password management hell of online services and the poor security of smartphones and tablets, and more about the way that technology is becoming integrated with biology. Another aspect of this is the emerging field of smartwatches, which is thought to be Apple's next big product target.

Strictly speaking, smartwatches have been around for decades. Digital watches that could be used as calculators date from the 70s, while modern sports watches with accelerometers and GPS are common. But we're obviously on the cusp of something new now that companies such as Sony, Samsung and Apple are piling into the market opened up by the crowd-funded Pebble. (Just as an aside, I wonder if anyone told Samsung that "gear" is slang for heroin. Presumably they chose the word more for its "Top Gear" connotations, implying the target audience are mainly male and a bit dim. I suppose they could have gone for Gadget).

The choice of a watch has not traditionally been about utility for all but a few specialists (or those who fantasised they were jet pilots or divers). Being able to tell the time in 3 different places simultaneously isn't the reason why those who can afford it buy a Rolex. If you check your watch 10 times a day, that's probably no more than 30 seconds all told, which is a pretty low level of utility, irrespective of price. It's like buying a car and only driving it on the 29th of February. Watches have traditionally been positional goods, both those that are essentially jewellery and cheaper models that are a statement of personality (the ironic Mickey Mouse, the retro LCD Timex).

The smartwatch promises to augment this limited timekeeping utility and positional value with two new uses: acting as a display for alerts relayed by a smartphone, and housing a variety of bio-readers. As the former is somewhat underwhelming (if you really need to scan tweets in real time, you'll pull out the phone), and the latter is already well established with sports watches and bracelets, like the Nike FuelBand, there has been some scepticism that smartwatches can really be disruptive. They're not creating a new market after all, unless you count the tech-heads who dispensed with their watches back in the 90s because they could then check the time on their mobile phones. Given the long life of most watches, there won't be many people eyeing a smartwatch as a necessary replacement, and if the new device's lifetime is as short as a smartphone, many (of those with the necessary moolah) will consider a £500 analogue watch (with resale value) a far better investment that a £300 smartwatch that depreciates to junk inside 5 years.

Watches are part of the personal brand, so the core market for the smartwatch may be the intersection of those that take personal branding seriously and are into geek-chic and the "quantified self". The first person to wear both Google Glass and a smartwatch can expect to be stoned in public. Like the Borg eyewear, a key feature of the smartwatch is that it will be on display (don't expect wearers to discreetly shove it under the cuff). As a slave device, the smartwatch is a way of showing that you own an iPhone or top-end Galaxy without having to constantly and ostentatiously use the damn thing. Because you can now keep your phone trousered or bagged, the less-easy-to-snatch smartwatch will help reduce theft, which will please hipsters currently torn between showing off and staying safe.

The use of fingerprint authentication with the iPhone 5S, plus the parallel development of heartbeat signature sensors (a potentially more efficient biometric identity mechanism), means that in the not too distant future you may be obliged to buy a smartphone and watch combo in order to enjoy the full benefits of each, which provides growth for the nearly-saturated smartphone market as much as addressing the "how do you create a market for smartwatches?" problem. Some analysts even anticipate the smartwatch replacing key-fobs and secure access tokens for corporate workers, which means that businesses now giving staff smartphones may soon be shelling out for smartwatches too. If that market segment reaches critical mass, then you can expect the general population to be attracted, much as happened with BlackBerry.

Another potential new market segment is health and social care. A smartwatch stuffed with bioreaders could communicate with a smartphone and from there relay far richer diagnostic data to a central monitoring team than is possible with the current pager-like devices being trialled by the NHS. Of course, OAPs and the disabled (and possibly tagged offenders) are the sort of demographic that might pollute the brand, so you can expect the "public sector" version to look ugly and be cheaper, even if it is constructed in the same Chinese factories as the aspirational Apple and Samsung models.

The key point is that the "quantified self" is coming, and it may be approaching from multiple directions. Just as the NSA/GCHQ revelations have been a great leveller, proving that the self-proclaimed tech-savvy (as opposed to the real cognoscenti) are under exactly the same degree of observation and control as silver surfers and techno-buffoons (I'm thinking Claire Perry), so the smartwatch may mark the first step towards the ubiquity of biometrics. There is a clear progression here: from the compromising of devices that we periodically use (PCs), to devices that we carry with us (smartphones), to devices that we wear (smartwatches). The logical next step would be bioreader/transponder implants, which we'll probably trial in the health, social care and penal sectors. Neural lace and The Matrix are probably some way off, but you can see the direction of travel. Personally, I'm going to stick with my steampunk Seiko.

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