Selective enthusiasm

After posting my views on a hypothetical Apple smartwatch (in the form of a link to Harry C. Marks’ article, called Candidly Speaking, an iWatch is a Dumb Idea), I had a brief email exchange with a long-time reader of my blogs. He wrote me to say that, in his opinion, over the years I’ve been losing enthusiasm towards technology; that I’m getting more and more entrenched in a “conservative and jaded attitude” (his words) preventing me to “fully embrace the tech-driven change happening today”. According to him, my position as regards to a possible Apple iWatch is the perfect example. So let me explain a couple of things.

1. More on the ‘iWatch’

Although I think I ‘get’ Apple more than other people, there have been times in the past when my predictions of the company’s next move were incorrect, and on other occasions (see the earlier-than-expected introduction of the iPad 4, for example) I was really taken aback by certain decisions. But it’s okay, because I’ve never presented myself as a self-appointed ‘Apple analyst’. Mine has always been a quiet, mild speculation; I’ve never written ‘This is what Apple’s going to do’ articles with the boldness and certainty displayed by other tech writers. And secondly, with Apple I have always liked to wait and see; I’ve always liked to be surprised, because in the end, as Socrates would say, I know that I know nothing.

So, on the iWatch, I may be completely wrong, but here’s what I think. For Apple to produce one, it has to be something worthwhile. Apple doesn’t strike me as a company willing to waste R&D resources on an accessory that doesn’t sell well and that doesn’t introduce some kind of innovation or out-of-the-box thinking that’s typical of Apple. I reckon the company learnt a lesson after failed products like the iPod Hi-Fi. Therefore, in my opinion we’re going to see an Apple smartwatch or similar wearable device only if it brings a novel, useful approach. It has to be something ordinary people want to buy and strap to their wrist — not just geeks. Geeks have to remember they’re in the minority. I agree, we shouldn’t consider a smartwatch just a fancy digital watch with a few added features. But to be successful, people have to want to wear this thing for many hours in a day, just like a watch. Wearable fitness devices are tolerable because you wear them for specific purposes and for a limited time. A smartwatch, in theory, is a device you have on you all the time, or at least during your waking hours.

The iWatch as an accessory for iPhone/iPad/iPod seems something a bit too redundant to be really useful and become wildly popular. A geek may be fascinated to receive notifications from iOS apps on his/her iWatch, or to see a live weather widget beneath the time and date on the display. For a regular person… eh, it’s a different story. I used to have one of those calculator wristwatches back in the 1980s. At first I was a bit mad at friends and people for basically making fun of it (and me), but after the novelty aspect wore off, I soon understood that it was an ugly and rather impractical device. It sure seemed useful to be able to do calculations ‘on the fly’ wherever and whenever I wanted, but in reality that turned out to happen much more infrequently than anticipated. And when I did use it, I realised how limited and impractical the calculator feature was, making me wish I had taken with me my full-featured scientific calculator.

To be an interesting device, a smartwatch has to overcome this kind of disappointing experience. As an iPhone/iPad/iPod accessory, what problems does it solve? Can it really be better at notifications, having a smaller screen than any current iOS device and probably a less versatile inteface? What can it do to make people want to get it as a valid iPhone companion? In all the pro-iWatch articles I’ve read, many if not all the features this smartwatch is supposed to have are all features that an iPhone already has or can handle better, offering a more comfortable user experience, and are all features that make an iWatch almost completely redundant or make it a very premium accessory to have.

As a standalone device, I agree with Sameer Singh’s observations in his piece Can Apple’s iWatch Create a Market Disruption?, especially this:

Of course, the challenges here are far more significant – primarily design & engineering related. At this stage, the battery power backup for an iWatch sized product would be very limited. Even if it was powered by kinetic energy, it may be nearly impossible to support an on-board GSM radio. The iWatch would need access to the internet and standalone applications. A 1.5 inch screen would provide a sub-par experience with apps and browsing, and it may be next to impossible to use the touchscreen for navigation or input. This leaves Siri as the primary input method, which may not be reliable enough at this stage. While I won’t question Apple’s expertise, these are significant challenges for any company.

In conclusion, I think that we’re not going to see an iWatch unless Apple has thought about producing a device with enough innovation in it and that can provide a useful and unique approach, a device that’s worth investing R&D resources on, a device with the potential of being a big commercial hit.

2. On my enthusiasm

Well, the short explanation is in the title of this piece, actually. It’s not that I’ve been losing interest or enthusiasm in technology. What my long-time correspondent calls a “conservative and jaded attitude” is more a reaction to how technology is treated and talked about by the tech press, especially online.

Part of my everyday morning ritual is leafing through Flipboard’s Technology section on the iPad while I have my coffee. And what I notice on an alarmingly frequent basis is that a lot of pieces of tech news exude hype and hyperbole, either for products or technologies that exist, or for products and technologies that may be revealed in the near future. I also notice an unhealthy amount of rumours, gossip, wild speculation passed off as ‘analysis’, lots of editorialising, and so on and so forth. And I also notice a certain attitude among tech-oriented bloggers which I find increasingly annoying and which is the opposite of my selective enthusiasm: a kind of blanket enthusiasm for whatever new application, product, technology or service being introduced. I know, I know, it’s “just passion” for what they do. Enthusiasm is good, it’s a powerful force that drives you to keep doing what you do — in this case, talking about all things tech.

But from what I can see, a large part of today’s technological buzz is what I call gadgetry and a lot of what I read about it is bathed in self-indulgence and navel-gazing. A lot of people in the tech world look mesmerised by all these digital toys and it seems that all they’re interested in are newer, cooler toys to keep playing with. The next, bigger smartphone. The Apple smartwatch. The next app to synchronise your work. The next service to make your workflow even easier, even more ‘frictionless’ (no matter if it works much like the other app or service you already use and are happy with — look, it has cooler graphics and visuals!). And what I see are people who talk and talk about these things, these little cool digital toys as if they were all that matters. If you try to offer a more critical perspective you’re the luddite, the old-school curmudgeon, you are someone who’s afraid of the new and foolishly resists change in the name of quaint principles and all that.

So yes, my enthusiasm is very selective when it comes to technology. I don’t give a damn about Facebook’s Graph Search. I fail to be really interested or fascinated by Project Google Glass. Wearable technology as it is today doesn’t particularly attract me. The nth cloud service makes me yawn. What really makes me tick is the bigger picture, what I’m really enthusiastic about are game-changing technologies, products, services. Technology that truly impacts and betters people’s lives. Not the newest gadget or toy that does little more than keeping people entertained and often turns out to be little more than a time-waster. (Don’t get me wrong: I recognise the value of all those applications that make life easier by making dull things more entertaining.)

My enthusiasm is all for new discoveries and technological advances that really make things advance, that really make me feel there’s true progress. I remember some tech-related ‘whoa moments’ in my past: the discovery of Desktop Publishing, laser printers, the first powerful and really portable laptops, PDAs like the Newton and handwriting recognition, optical discs, the Web, the GPS, and then devices like the Kindle, the iPhone and the iPad.

And I don’t fear the new, nor I resist change. What I resist is accepting new tech-related trends uncritically. What I resist is the It’s new, therefore it’s good dogma. What I resist is diverting my attention from what’s important (work, the task at hand, creativity, etc.) to obsess over the many different tools to use to do the job or to let creativity flow. Again, I reserve my enthusiasm for the kind of technological innovation that truly improves our lives, not for gadgets or other digital toys that end up making us addicted to them and negatively affect our behaviour.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!