Geek. Not chic.

Craig Hockenberry has written a truly insightful article, Wearing Apple, analysing how Apple could approach the category of wearable devices. The steps in Hockenberry’s reasoning leading to his conclusion that Apple may introduce a ‘ring’ rather than a ‘watch’ (in quotes because those would be more than just a ring or just a watch) are sound and logical. What Hockenberry writes in The Product section of his piece makes a lot of sense.

Still, I think that a ring would be even more difficult to market, no matter how smart or ‘Apple-designed’ it can be.

Importance and meaning

A ring is a traditionally symbolic object to wear. I’m aware of the dangers of anecdotal evidence, but most people I know don’t wear rings lightly. Whatever the amount of rings they wear, each one is there for a reason, each one is there because it means something. What you wear on your finger is typically more important than what you wear on your wrist or neck. It feels more intimate. Entering this space with a technological device is not impossible, but I have the feeling it’s a minefield. I also have the feeling it would appeal to a rather limited demographic/target — the intersection of young and geeky people. What about other people outside of this demographic? And whatever this Apple smart-ring can offer, it doesn’t sound strong enough to make (these) people wear such a device. It could actually prove easier and more practical to make them wear something on their wrists.

Permanence

Together with intimacy, a ring is usually associated with permanence. A lot of people don’t wear watches all day, and most people don’t wear watches 24/7. I’ve never worn rings, and when I got married I remember struggling with having to wear my wedding ring, I really had to get physically accustomed with its presence, knowing full well how meaningful it was and what represents. After a few months, my wedding ring became part of me, and today I don’t even notice its presence. I bet a lot of tech companies would love people to wear smart wearables permanently, devices that just ‘disappear’ after a while. But I’m not that sure regular people want this. I think they would prefer something they feel they can remove anytime they want. I think that for them to accept a piece of technology in such an intimate, meaningful place, it has to be a really, really compelling device. I’ll use the same Tim Cook quote cited by Hockenberry:

To convince people they have to wear something, it has to be incredible. If we asked a room of 20-year olds to stand up if they’re wearing a watch, I don’t think anyone would stand up.

And yes, maybe if we asked a room of 20-year olds to stand up if they’re wearing a ring, more people would stand up, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they would be glad to have a smart-ring on their fingers. And if they were, it would be interesting to try the same experiment with a room of 30-year olds and 40-year olds. True, nobody’s saying that a smart-ring has to be worn permanently — you could wear it just when you need it and take it off when you don’t. But again, that’s not how people typically view rings. They see a ring and think ‘permanence,’ ‘intimacy,’ ‘on my finger,’ and do they want that thing that vibrates, tracks, communicates its presence (and your presence) there on their finger? Hmmm. I don’t know.

Geek. Not chic.

Do you remember that famous 1998 advertisement for the first iMac model? Its tag line was Chic. Not geek., indicating how that new Mac wasn’t simply technologically advanced, but also something stylish to look at and to have. In judging wearable ideas, solutions, mockups, actual products, I mentally reverse that tag line and it works every time. The Pebble, the Samsung Gear, you name it. Imagine an ad that says ‘Geek. Not chic.’ for these devices — it works. Hockenberry’s idea of an Apple smart-ring is great and well thought-out, but it still retains a geeky essence:

[This wearable device could support iBeacon.] Let this sink in for a second: your wearable device is transmitting a signal with a unique identifier that can be picked up by an iOS 7 device. And the proximity detection is sensitive within a few inches. Presumably, this signal could be also be detected on your Mac as well, since they have supported Bluetooth 4.0 since mid-2011.

By wearing this ring on your finger, your devices can know how close you are to them.

This opens up a world of possibilities: imagine the joy we’d all feel when a notification only popped up on the device we’re closest to. Right now my ring finger is hovering over my MacBook Air’s keyboard by 2-3 inches, while the phone in my pocket is over a foot away. Notification Center needs this information.

I read this and ask myself — and ask you: Look around you as you walk down the street. How many people would be so thrilled, so excited by this, as to want to wear a tech ring on their finger? How many people share the problems that this smart-ring solves for Hockenberry and other Apple geeks?

The power of attraction

As I’ve recently emphasised, Marco Arment nails it when he comments:

Apple’s previous blockbusters — Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad — were all in categories that people really wanted, and there was hope of something good existing within what was technically possible. There were halfway decent portable music players before the iPod, and people really wanted portable music players. Same for smartphones and tablets.

A smart-ring (or smart-watch or smart-wearable) designed to be a companion device of another device in this Digital Hub 2.0 is going to work best (or even only) inside an ecosystem, and I see Hockenberry’s ring working really well if the user already owns a Mac and an iOS device. Every device produced by Apple since Jobs returned in 1997-98 has had a strong power of attraction over people. I’ve seen a lot of people switching to Apple via the iPod, and a fair share of people switching to Apple thanks to the iPhone and the iPad. I don’t see an equally great power of attraction in a ring as Hockenberry describes it — or in any hypothetical Apple smartwatch for that matter. Unless, of course, such device can offer innovative and independent uses. In other words, unless it’s a cool device that 1) has enough standalone functionalities that people may want to purchase it, and 2) teases users by making them realise how so much better it would work if it were used in combination with other Apple devices.

Too many variables

Throwing out products and see what sticks is not part of Apple’s culture. Apple doesn’t introduce a device lightly and I can only begin to imagine all the challenges they’re facing with the wearables category. Where to wear such a device? What features should it offer? What could make it compelling to the widest possible audience? Can it be used on its own, or is it going to work only in conjunction with another Apple device? Which problems does it solve? Which things can it do better than existing solutions? In what ways could improve people’s lives? (This, I believe, is the question that best captures Apple’s approach to designing new products.) Should it be just an expansion of Apple’s product offerings or should it also entice users of other platforms into switching to Apple’s ecosystem? And how? And so on and so forth.

Getting this product right is extremely difficult and the timing is also crucial, because now more than ever Apple needs to get it right. The anticipation and pressure from the media is reaching a point that a product fiasco at this juncture could have a dramatic impact on Apple. And there are so many variables to consider, which is what makes the wearables category such a risky operation. My guess is as good as yours, but I believe that whatever device Apple introduces, it’s going to be something unassuming at first, something that will make pundits think that Apple’s playing safe. Something that will not feel exactly like a tremendous breakthrough. But that will gather strength, features and scope by iterative refinements. And, of course, that won’t appeal only to geeks.

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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!