Due to Apple's event last week, there is currently much discussion about the viability of the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch is the first new product category from Apple since the iPad, and the first since Tim Cook became CEO of Apple. Reaction to it is mixed, torn between those who have faith in a company who has successfully convinced us in the past that we really do need a product, such as the iPad, and those who see the Apple Watch with its complicated looking home screen and multiple buttons as very "un-Apple."
The problem is, I think, that Apple has not clearly communicated why the Apple Watch exists and why one needs to own one. When it launched the iPhone, Apple told us it was the best music player that could also make phone calls, browse the web, and handle email; later thanks to the App Store, the iPhone became the device for doing whatever one needs (there is an app for that). Apple told us the iPad is really the only personal computer many of us need, marking the beginning of the "post-PC" era.
After watching the launch of the Apple watch, do you know why you need one?
The problem is not Apple's alone, before Tim Cook took the stage last week Google had already announced Android Wear and its first consumer incarnation in smartwatches. I can't help put feel that smartwatches are a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist. I don't doubt that seeing notifications on my wrist may be convenient, but do I need it? In contrast, a smartphone is pretty much a necessity today. Why? Because for most the smartphone is their primary personal computer.
A smartwatch is always going to be an accessory, and I think the thrashing about that we are seeing is an attempt to make the product category something that it is not. Because it is an accessory does not make the smartwatch a bad thing, accessories are an important part of a lot of different markets. Think of the "regular" watches people own today, they are pieces of jewelry, some more pretty than functional, and jewelry by definition is an accessory. Indeed some people spend thousands of dollars on accessories.
The smartwatch is not a personal computer on your wrist, right now it is an input/output device for smartphones. Input/output devices like monitors, keyboards, and mice are called accessories. What I see is Apple and Google attempting to make the smartwatch much more than it is, most likely to justify their high price.
Should the smartwatch be a personal computer on your wrist? I do not think so, mostly because I don't think it is feasible to make a personal computer in a form factor that looks good and is comfortable on a wrist. I do think, however, that one reason why I might want a smartwatch is to accessorize my personal computing.
Regular watches as jewelry are accessories for people, smartwatches need to be accessories in the same way and to become that they need to integrate with more than just smartphones, they need to integrate with the world around me. For example, it is widely accepted that userids and passwords are not secure, and with the seemingly endless stream of announcements of data theft, it is clear we need a more secure model of authentication. What if the smartwatch, while securely attached to my body, could be used as a factor in two-factor authentication? Here, I am thinking of something like how the Apple Watch will work with Apple Pay, but used in all instances of authentication and not just for payments.
In my opinion, the smaller the device the more specific its function, and the problem I see with both Android Wear and Apple Watch is that they both are trying to do too much. Right now, I think Android Wear is better on track with its focus on notifications, but both platforms attempt to incorporate applications that make it more of a general computing device, and as I said, a smartwatch is an accessory, not a personal computer.
I think the real problem that Apple and Google have to overcome for their watches to succeed is convincing people that they don't replace wristwatches, instead they are smartphone accessories. People have long given up wearing wristwatches and aren't looking to simply replace them with something else. The Apple and Google watches are really smartphone accessories, and the question to be answered is, do people want or need a smartphone accessory?
My belief is that watches need to be more than accessories for smartphones, and to achieve that they need to communicate with as many other devices and services as possible. The watches need to be accessories for desktop and laptop computers, appliances, cars, web browsers and more.
Note that right now Apple Watch needs an iPhone to work and Android Wear needs an Android phone to work. I don't think that watches need to be complete stand-alone devices, but I do think they need to communicate with more than just smartphones to be of the best use for enough people. Put another way, right now the potential market size for these watches is at most the same size as the respective smartphone markets. Do you want to be selling devices that have a market cap right from the beginning?
Dave Winer thinks that Apple Pay is the big deal in the announcements yesterday, and I think he is right. At the very least, the problem Apple Pay is trying to solve is much more significant and needed by all of us more than what Apple Watch or iPhone solves. What is needed to improve how we pay for things is open standards supported by all the significant players in the market at the same level as local area networking standards have been implemented in the past. We do not want payment processing standards to be like mobile broadband standards in the United States. At least Apple has adopted NFC for communication with Point Of Sale terminals.
It shouldn't take much for Google Wallet and all other wallets to implement the same one-time-use credit card numbers as Apple Pay will use. Hopefully that intellectual property is owned by the payment processors, who have incentive to see the same process used across wallets, than by Apple, who might prefer lock-in. Apple needs to advocate a standard architecture that all parties, including their competitors, can use, while adding value by making the process simpler and most secure on their devices.
The biggest risk for mobile payments is fragmentation caused by the mobile carriers. We can't have AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile implementing different payment methods and blocking the use of any other payment methods. The carriers have blocked the use of different wallets in the past, for example AT&T initially did not allow Google Wallet to work on their phones.
Here is an example of where payment processing can go off the rails for consumers if companies like Google buy companies like Mastercard. We need separation between the back end and front end infrastructures to insure there is a standard back end that benefits all of us.