The Watch of the Future, Today (Not Today)

Charging a watch from a phoneFirst they unplugged your phone from the wall, rolled it up and stuffed it in your pocket. Then they took your camera off the shelf, shaved it down to the thickness of a playing card and slid that inside the phone. They crammed in your Walkman too. Your address book and appointments diary. Pager, torch, pedometer, radio, dictaphone, bookshelf, TV, PC, satnav, even your wallet now. In short, just about any piece of equipment you might want to carry around in your pocket finds itself inexorably sucked into the single über-device we still, for want of decision, call a phone.

There is a good one-word explanation for this: Synergy. All these functions share at least some and often many requirements – a visual interface perhaps, network connectivity, speakers, data storage, computational power of course. The user benefits greatly by not having to carry multiple versions of essentially the same hardware. Imagine how we’d rattle if we did. It wouldn’t be worth the effort or expense to make most of these things pocket-sized. Make them a function of a universal gadget however, and the synergies flow.

The one that really clinches it though is power. At first it may seem counter-intuitive to put all our electric eggs in one battery basket. When one goes flat, they all go. But consider the alternative: If all these things needed charging separately there would be one or more plugged in pretty much all the time, completely undermining mobility. The greatest synergy of all is that you can charge everything at once. In many respects what we’re really carrying around is a fantastic little power source with some peripherals attached to it.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why smart watches have never really taken off. They cannot as yet replace the smartphone, and carrying both means you duplicate many functions while adding few. Yet they have to be charged as often as phones or more, doubling your inconvenience for very little palpable benefit. While you might embrace one enthusiastically as the badge of an early adopter, it won’t be so long before you find you forgot to charge it. The simple fact is, you don’t need a smartwatch.

I’m sure the Apple Watch will be more successful than any that has gone before, but that isn’t saying much. It may serve as a status symbol – at those prices, it is hard to imagine what else it could serve as – but in its current form it’s another niche product like Apple TV, not the next Apple game-changer. Here’s why:

To ever be more than an expensive optional accessory to the smartphone, the smartwatch has to turn the smartphone into its optional accessory.

Note the word optional. The market-redefining smartwatch will have to do all the indispensable communication things – texts, emails, social media updates and, last but still not least, voice calls. But unlike the current Apple offering, it needs to do it without an attached smartphone. Otherwise it’s really more of a burden than a blessing. The smartwatch will be successful when it’s the one device you always want to bring with you. Your wrist is the natural place for that.

This will not mean the end for the unit we still call the phone. We’re unlikely to abandon such a convenient, multifunctional device while it still has irreducible advantages: A far larger screen interface, room for more and better sensors, more data, and of course much more energy. But we can reimagine the phone now. Specifically we can imagine it… without the phone.

If your watch can receive your calls and data, then the “phone” no longer has to be an always-on device. It can be more like a small tablet, used for apps, browsing, media and other roles that benefit hugely by the larger screen and greater processing power. But like a tablet it only needs to be powered up when you actually want to do those things, putting it in the class of devices with battery life measured not in hours but in days. And this introduces a very interesting possibility: it could act as a power bank to the watch. You’d worry a lot less about running out of juice on the road if your communication device could be topped up from its energy-rich companion. That’s not just a synergy, it’s symbiosis.

And this is not the only opportunity offered by taking the phone out of the phone. The limitations on the dimensions of your pocket device have always been dictated by its phone functions. Giants like the Galaxy Note 4 or iPhone 6 Plus push at the limits of what most people can comfortably use one-handed. Go much larger, and you cross the boundary of what fits into pockets. Shifting the communication function to the watch though means you no longer really need its companion to a be go-everywhere compromise. It can, literally and figuratively, be whatever your pocket allows. You could even have more than one of them – a slim one for tight pants and a big one for a bag, anything from a born-again flip phone to a workhorse device with a pen or keyboard. What the phone will evolve into is a set of optional extensions for your wristwatch. These may reproduce some of its functions and add others, but their essential purpose is to allow you to choose the best interface for the way you want to interact with it.

All this awaits the creation of a smartwatch that really is usable for voice calls and data, yet has battery life to last comfortably through the day. It’s a tall technological order, and the (first) Apple Watch certainly doesn’t achieve it. What it may achieve though – indeed, perhaps what only Apple can achieve – is an end to our culture’s resistance against talking into your wrist like a cartoon character. That alone would be a great stride toward the next mobile revolution.

Folding Tablets

Sony Tablet P - Click for slide show

We have still to see any real Android challenge to the iPad. The simple fact is, they’re not as nice. Apple’s hermetic approach to design means that they can tweak the whole package until it’s really quite lovely. Almost every rival product so far feels like an inferior imitation.

It shouldn’t be this way. The advantage of the more open Android platform ought to be that, like Windows, it gets used on an interesting variety of hardware. That should allow creative manufacturers to experiment and innovate. Inexcusably though, most don’t. But just now and again someone lets loose, and the results justify the wait.

Sony simply call it the Tablet P, and though it looks like one of those concept devices that are demoed and then never seen again, it is actually coming to market – along with its more conventional sibling the Tablet S – any day now. I don’t even usually like Sony’s stuff; for my tastes it seems too shiny and insubstantial. But the idea of a folding tablet is just gorgeous.

Why? Well the iPad has been touted as somehow a replacement for print publications – even the potential saviour of the publishing industry. But it is not a device you can easily carry around with you to read in the places most people read casually: During journeys and commutes, sitting at a café table. Basically it’s too big; smartphones on the other hand are too small for comfortable reading. A device that has almost the same screen size as an iPad yet can be slipped into a jacket pocket or handbag makes sense in so many more situations.

Meanwhile, there are strong rumours that Amazon is about to enter the fray too, attempting to beat other tablets where so far there’s been a painful absence of competition – on price. So despite Apple’s courtroom tactics and the demise of HP’s Touchpad, it looks like competition is finally beginning to happen. The biggest upset though may be yet to come. So far, Microsoft has been noticeable in the consumer tablet market mostly by its absence. Are they having second thoughts? More soon…

Click On My Face

This is a artistic steganography try. It talks...
There could be a link encoded in this image. There isn't, but there could be.

Yesterday I was discussing QR codes, and the possibility of turning the actual text in magazines or on posters into links. I see no reason why in the very near future you couldn’t go to a Web page, video or other online resource simply by pointing a phone at a printed URL. These methods could help revive the flagging newspaper and magazine industries, by introducing a much greater integration between the printed page and the Internet. For example you could easily share a magazine article with Facebook friends.

An idea that I can see supplanting even this though is a form of steganography – that is, encoding links and other data into pictures, in such a way that they can be read by machine without being visible to humans. Actually this is already used for anti-forgery systems; Adobe Photoshop for example will refuse to handle scans of Euro notes because it recognizes a pattern hidden in the design. The same method could turn photographs into clickable links when you look at them through your phone.

And print designers will absolutely love this. Not only do they not require blocky codes or funny fonts, they can make tired elements like www and .com finally vanish from their pages. So these I think will be with us pretty soon. Until they’re eventually replaced by RFID ink.

QR Code

Go On, Point Your Phone At It

See that? That’s a QR code. You find these things everywhere now; in papers and magazines, on business cards and posters. If you’ve been wondering what the hell’s going on, they’re a similar idea to barcodes. They can contain hidden messages, contact details, dirty limericks – best of all, links to websites.

Scan one with your phone’s camera, and its browser will open the page. (You’ll find a free QR reader for most recent phones here.) The one shown is for this very blog. Now real-world objects like printed pages, even buildings, can have clickable links.

But why stop there? I’m growing a vast privet hedge maze in the shape of this code. Soon you’ll be able to come here by clicking on satellite photographs.

What Phone Is Right For You? 5 – Apple Changes Everything

iPhone, Apple Inc.
Image by Cloud. via Flickr

Let’s get now to the ones people actually care about: The fun, fashionable phones – and the rivalry between Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android.

When Apple first launched the iPhone, nobody guessed just how big apps were going to become. Smartphones had applications before this of course. It was possible to download software both for Windows Mobile and for Symbian. But these hadn’t exactly set the world on fire. In part, this was because the phones came with all the software necessary for normal use, and more beside. Most additional programs tended to be either created by businesses for their own use, or were ephemera like games. The bigger reason though was that these OSes ran on a wide range of phones, all with different hardware. Not just different processors, but different control button layouts, different keyboards, different abilities. Some phones might have cameras, 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS, others none of those. Anything but the most basic software was only really going to work on one specific phone, making the market unattractively fragmented for developers.

A big part of Apple’s success therefore was simply that there was only one iPhone, with a good set of hardware features for programmers to work with. Even more important though was the innovative touch interface. This seemed almost a gimmick at first glance. At second, it seemed brilliant – now all the area taken up on an ordinary phone for buttons and controls could be given over to a screen big enough for comfortable video or Web viewing. But even that was overlooking the real genius of the idea. One whole side of the iPhone was completely configurable – as display, as controls, or as any combination thereof. The whole user interface could be adapted to the intended task. This was what made the iPhone not just a clever phone, but a whole new order of device. A shape-changer. And this meant that as well as being a potentially profitable thing to develop software for, it was also – crucially – an interesting one.

So it’s a great phone for software developers. Is it the phone for you?

I Can’t Tell You Much

it's real :)
This is *not* the best phone ever. This one is hideous.

These are my first faltering steps, but I am blogging now on a hanheld device. It’s tricky, it has to be said.The tiny screen I can handle, but the microscopic keyboard with weird layout will take some getting used to.

That though could be said of anything from the latest iPhone to the cheapest Symbian or Android device. This one, in my opinion, is the greatest smartphone ever made – indeed, that perhaps ever will be made. Seriously.

But that’s all I can tell you right now. Partly of course to keep you guessing that bit longer.

And partly because I need to relearn how to type.