How Wearable Computing Will Change Everything, Including Apple



Listen, you tech-savvy, trend-resisting cynic you. I want you to stop dismissing wearable computing as a pointless, narcissistic fad.

Wearable computing is not for people too lazy to look at their phones. It’s not a trendy toy for wealthy yuppies. And it’s not about joining Robert Scoble in the shower.

What you need to know is this: Wearable computing is the next evolution of consumer electronics. And it changes everything for everyone and not just the people actually wearing the computing.

And it will change Apple, too. Here’s how.

Wearable computing will change the world just as smartphones did.

Ten years ago, hardly anyone had smartphones. And nobody thought smartphones would transform consumer technology and human culture. Smartphones were viewed as an overpriced, faddish toy for geek extremists.

Sound familiar?

More to the point, smartphones changed things even for holdouts who never got a smartphone.

Take online social interaction. Somebody with a Facebook account but no smartphone would see their social streams evolving because other people had smartphones with apps, GPS and cameras in them.

Expectations about navigating in your car, taking pictures, posting, responding and sharing while away from your desk changed. The holdouts couldn’t escape these expectations, only disappoint them.

Smartphones changed everything for everybody and the cynicism and ignorance about smartphones that existed in 2003 was short-sighted and misguided.

And the same is true about wearable computing today. Instead of resisting, dismissing and denouncing wearable computing, it’s time to accept and understand it.

What Wearable Computing Is Really All About

There’s an invisible bubble that surrounds us. Everything inside that bubble is “me.” Everything outside that bubble is “not me.”

Clothing, glasses, jewelry, medical devices, tattoos, hearing aids and other such things are products you buy. But when you wear them, they’re inside the “me” bubble. They’re part of who and what we are.

Smartphones are compelling in part because they exist right at the surface of that bubble. They’re both “me” and “not me” at the same time.

Wearable computing is about bringing the Internet fully inside the “me” bubble.

No, not the whole Internet. There isn’t enough room.

Wearable computing will be about bringing three aspects of the Internet into the “me” bubble:

1. Notifications

2. Virtual assistance

3. Communication

In a nutshell, wearable computing will change how each of these three things function, and for everybody. Not just people wearing computing. And it will change Apple, too.

1. Notifications

You’ll notice that Apple, Google, Facebook and everybody else has been focusing on getting notifications right. You’ve got a text message. Your friend is in town. You’d better leave within the next 10 minutes or you’ll be late for your meeting. Our computers or phones make a noise and we get updated.

Apple’s upcoming iWatch will almost certainly relay iPhone Notification Center alerts to your wrist.

The Notification Centers on OS X and iPhone are designed to stay out of the way. On the iWatch, they’ll be the main event, constantly informing you about breaking news, weather and stocks (if you choose), incoming messages and social media activity and the status of your stuff (your iPhone’s battery is about to die, etc.)

Apple has everything it needs to implement Notifications Center on the iWatch.

2. Virtual assistance

I believe Apple bought Siri specifically to prepare for the wearable computing revolution. Instead of searching Google Search for answers to your questions, Siri is a virtual human you talk to and who ultimately will proactively give you information and suggestions.

This is a necessity for wearable computing, because all currently conceivable wearable computing scenarios involve limited screen space. Voice and artificial intelligence together are the “killer app” for wearable computing.

I expect you’ll be able to tap the watch and chat with Siri just like you do today on your iPhone. In fact, your voice will be simply relayed to the phone and thence to remote servers for the processing. The results will come back to the watch.

Apple has everything it needs to implement Siri virtual assistance on an iWatch.

3. Communication

The evolution of various messaging applications have clouded our thinking. It’s better just to describe how people are communicating.

Communication can be text, pictures, voice or videos. It can be instant or asynchronous. It can be private, semi-private or public. It can be on-on-one, one-to-many or many-to-many.

The coming wearable computing revolution is squeezing all these options into single messaging applications, whether you wear computing or not.

This week, Google is probably going to roll out a feature either branded or code-named Google Babel — or it may be branded Hangouts, conceived of as a newly flexible upgrade to Google’s social group video chat service.

Babel is probably a fancy rollup of every messaging thing Google makes (with Voice integration to come later). It will not only integrate services, but allow them to interoperate — conversations will probably be easy to move from text to voice to video and back and, at the end, conversants can choose to post the whole thing on Google+.

Let’s be clear about this: Google is integrating these apps for Google Glass. But the communication habits of non-Glass users will be transformed by it as well.

Google has everything it needs to implement wearable computing-ready communication into Google Glass and the coming Google smartwatch.

But Apple does not have everything it needs to compete against Google.

Apple is missing two components: Video chat and social networking.

Sure, Apple has Facetime. But Facetime is not a serious offering because it can only be used by the minority of people who have Apple products. Google Hangouts and, say, Skype can be used on all the major platforms and by a majority of users.

FaceTime also suffers from the limitation of being only for one-to-one communication.

So this is one way Apple will change to accommodate wearable computing: They will make FaceTime cross-platform and multi-user. (This is also necessary to compete in the Smart TV business.)

I don’t believe Apple will make this transformation soon, however, as the iWatch is unlikely to handle video in the first few iterations.

Apple’s biggest gaping hole is that the company doesn’t have a social network.

Google optimizes its wearable computing features — notifications, personal assistance and communication — to be Google+ centric. Google+ is becoming an all-purpose platform for harvesting social signals, posting Glass pictures and videos, doing Hangouts and all the rest.

Apple’s current social networking strategy at present is little more than “anyone but Google.” Apple favors Facebook and Twitter in built-in social networking, which just isn’t going to cut it.

As notifications, personal assistance and communication are unified for the purposes of wearable computing, far too much importance and user data will reside on these external social networks. That data will be necessary for Siri to compete in the virtual assistance arena, too.

And that’s why Apple will build or buy a social network. Twitter is a strong candidate for a buy. But either way, I believe Apple will be getting into the social networking racket soon.

Apple’s iWatch potentially has vastly more consumer appeal than Google Glass, mainly because a wristwatch is far more acceptable to the general public and far easier to make elegant and affordable, than is a head-mounted gadget that beams light into one eye.

But in order to fully realize this idea, Apple’s going to need a cross-platform, multi-user FaceTime and also a social network of its own.

And these transformations will change things for every Apple user, not just the wearable computing people.


(Picture courtesy of Tolga Tuncer.)



Daily round-ups or a weekly refresher, straight from Cult of Mac to your inbox.

  • The Weekender

    The week's best Apple news, reviews and how-tos from Cult of Mac, every Saturday morning. Our readers say: "Thank you guys for always posting cool stuff" -- Vaughn Nevins. "Very informative" -- Kenly Xavier.