Wednesday 18 March 2015

Watching The Future

I am, it has to be said, something of a techie. I'm writing this piece on the move using an iPad connected to a Bluetooth keyboard, tethered wirelessly to the 3G on my obscure-brand Chinese smartphone to access the web. So, of course, people have been asking me what I think of the Apple Watch.
That's an interesting question, and the Apple Watch is an interesting item. It's Apple's first move into the fashion arena, offering the must-have accessory of the spring/summer season. It comes in a huge range of prices and finishes, right up to a solid gold offering for £13K. Which seems a lot, until you actually look at what that money will get you for a gold watch in the current marketplace. In the world of luxury watches, thirteen grand is entry level. And those things only really tell the time.
The most intriguing part of Apple's recent presentation that launched the Watch wasn't about that object of desire at all. It was about the way their mobile operating system, iOS, is entering into ever tighter integration with health and medical services, even to the point of gamifying research into diseases like Parkinson's. It's often difficult to get people to sign up for medical research. If you make it as easy as playing a game on your phone, your database of results (and hence their likely viability) will go through the roof.
This is fascinating stuff, and opens up the notion of a wrist-worn computer (that, don't forget, has a built-in heart monitor) to all sorts of potential uses. A recent article in the Guardian put the case for the Apple Watch changing the way we donate and interact with charity and social issues.
Take the humble charity wristband. They're a blazing success story, with millions sold every year. What if, instead of buying a band for your favourite charity, you could download a branded watchface instead? It would cost the same to buy, but the charity wouldn't have to pay for manufacturing and distribution. More money therefore goes to the cause you want to support.
With location-based services very much at the heart of the modern mobile experience, the chance to be gently reminded about social issues when you're out and about comes into play. The Guardian uses the example of a nudge to sign a petition when you're near the obnoxious anti-homeless spikes that have been appearing on our streets, but maybe pop-ups when you're approaching your local Oxfam about their newest campaign could be a thing.
Health tracking is a big part of the reason many people buy a smart watch, and there are all sorts of opportunities to use that information to do good things. Virtual marathons, for example, where you can donate the miles you walk or travel in a day towards a cause. This is already happening in places that support the BetterWorld initiative (like my hometown of Reading), where you can log your activity and exchange it for goods and services. Then, of course, there's the advantage of wearing a health tracker that can automatically contact the emergency services the moment it detects a problem.
Of course, there are potential pitfalls to this new paradigm. No-one wants to be bombed with petition requests every fifty yards. Consent is key, as is the ability to easily adjust your preferences should you sign up to a service in a charitable flush only to find out that it really isn't what you expected or wanted. Clarity and transparency is key (as it should be in any charitable transaction) if you want your experience to be fun, rather than a chore. Or indeed, a privacy issue.
It's early days for the technology, and we already have naysayers and critics unifying against Apple, before they even go on sale. Experienced observers have, of course, seen all this before, and you could fill an article with negative early reaction to the iPod, iPad and iPhone that tend to blur into one comment--no-one will want one. The opposite has usually been the case, to the point where Apple's designs aren't just ubiquitous, but massively influential. There's a reason phones all look the same these days.
Although it would be foolish to predict the success of one product based on the performance of others, it feels likely that there will be a lot of people sporting an Apple Watch, or the Android equivalent, over the next few years. It will be fascinating to see how the move to a wrist-based way of looking at the world of information will change things. Let's hope that change is positive.

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