A Smartwatch Is An Accessory, Not A Personal Computer

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.

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A Coral Reef Is An Ecosystem, A Super Market Is Not

An ecosystem is more like a coral reef than a super market. All sorts of aquatic life depend on a coral reef for their existence and if that coral reef is destroyed most of the aquatic life that depends on it would also die. While I need a super market to buy food, if the super market down the street closes I can always find another one.

I see constant references to “ecosystems” in the context to shopping. The Apple ecosystem is based on the iTunes store where one can buy music and movies, and Apple’s retail stores where one can get support and buy products that work with Apple’s hardware. The Amazon ecosystem is its web site where one can buy books, music, and movies that can be played on personal computing devices.

In my opinion an ecosystem is more than just the ability to buy stuff, to me an ecosystem is about sustainability. Putting personal computing in context of ecosystems, can a user continually benefit from using a computer that improves their life? For me ecosystems aren’t just whether I can buy books, music or movies, but also whether the information I need to grow and be productive is available to me.

Google is an information company that makes money by selling ads associated with information. Apple is a hardware company that makes money by selling the best hardware. Amazon is an online retailer that makes money by making it easy for users to buy stuff.

A coral reef doesn’t exist to form an ecosystem, the ecosystem that forms around it is a consequence of its existence. In my opinion, Google is the only company of the three that has as a result of its primary purpose the formation of an ecosystem. It not only provides music and movies, but it also provides access to a wide range of information, from email to maps, to information on Google Now, to web searches.

I have many reasons to go back to the “coral reef Google” because my life involves more than just buying stuff. I need answers to the questions I have as I go about my life, and each time I go back to the “coral reef Google” to nibble on more information, “coral reef Google” benefits from my presence.

When I need to buy something, I usually go to the “supermarket Amazon” because I trust it to have the product I need at an affordable price and the company ships the product to my front door. Frankly, no device whether it is sold by Apple, Samsung, Motorola, or HTC is going to prevent me from shopping at Amazon.

Now we come to the challenge that Amazon has to over come in selling their Fire smartphone. The questions I need answers to occur much more frequently and at many more locations than my need to shop. If I am lost and need directions to the nearest store, I need those directions right now and I know I will find those directions by asking Google on my smartphone.

On the occasions when I need to shop, while it might be convenient for me to do so on my smartphone, I am most likely capable of waiting until I have access to a notebook computer. I most likely don’t need to shop right now, and if I do need a product right now, I am going to the store for which I need directions to and not to Amazon’s web site.

For most people the need for answers and information is more important than the need to shop. Android phones that have full access to Google’s services are best suited for providing answers and information. Unfortunately for Amazon, it is also very easy for me to shop from Amazon on those same Android phones.

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Amazon’s Phone May Not Be On Fire

It’s far too early to say whether Amazon’s new smartphone, announced today, is going to succeed or not, but first impressions matter. Having read what has been written about the Amazon Fire, I currently have two thoughts. Amazon has added enough to the Fire Phone to differentiate it from the iPhone and other Android handsets. Dynamic Perspective aside, however, I am not sure Amazon is trying hard enough to really sell this phone.

No other smartphone, or tablet for that matter, uses sensors or cameras to improve device navigation. The closest thing that I can think of is Samsung’s Smart Screen feature they include in their tablets and phones that keeps the screen on as long as the front-facing camera detects your face. We are currently entrenched in touch and swipe interaction with devices, so I applaud Amazon for taking a stab at providing a different approach.

The question, of course, is whether Dynamic Perspective, and the UI and navigation enhancements it provides is so compelling that consumers will chose the Amazon Fire phone over an iPhone or any of the Android phones.

Which leads me to my sense that Amazon is not trying hard enough to sell this phone. The price for the Amazon Fire is the same as an iPhone and most Android phones, as are the performance and specifications. Why would you buy an Amazon Fire smartphone rather than an iPhone 5S or a Samsung S5?

In my opinion, if Amazon was pushing to sell significant numbers of this phone it would have much more aggressive pricing and include bundled services. With the Prime Music streaming release earlier in the week, I really expected that Amazon’s phone would be the first to come with AT&T’s Sponsored Data. As I understand it, with Sponsored Data, Amazon could have paid AT&T to allow Prime Music streaming to not count against a user’s data cap.

Instead, the on-contract price for the Amazon Fire phone is $199, no different than other phones, and there are really no bundled services. You do get one year of Amazon Prime, which is a $100 value but I don’t think consumers will view that as a discount on the price of the phone, and it is a limited offer.

I don’t think Amazon’s smartphone sales are going to be on fire, for now. Amazon is surely planning to be in the smartphone market for the long haul, and so I expect the Fire will be on more carriers and will bundle services over time. The risk, however, is expecting the Fire to over time have the same results as the Kindle.

Even though Amazon sells everything, most people first think of it as a a book store. The Kindle, and the Kindle Fires, as ebook readers, are a natural product for a book store. You think of ebooks, you think of Amazon and the Kindle. When consumers think of smartphones, are they going to think of Amazon?

While one can understand why Amazon wants to sell smartphones in order to sell more products, it is hard to understand why consumers will want to buy an Amazon smartphone. For the Fire to succeed, Amazon will have to provide consumers with a reason for why they want it.

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Apple Is Opening Up iOS

Apple’s World Wide Developer conference keynote was this afternoon, and the big news is that Apple is adding many APIs to iOS that enable developers to write even more powerful apps for the iPhone and iPad. Long time Android users will note that many of the features brings iOS on par to Android, particularly the added support for third party keyboards. Swype and SwiftKey will soon find their way to iPhones just like they exist on Android.

No new hardware was announced, but what we saw was clearly a prelude to new hardware to come. While iOS 8 will run on older iPhones and iPads, clearly it won’t run as well as it will on new hardware. The biggest demand for new hardware will be the new games, written to the hardware, that will provide more realistic animations than ever seen before on mobile devices.

Apple is putting forth their idea of improved security by providing access to Touch ID to third party apps and services, which means one will be able to use their fingerprint to access security web sites and stores and banks on iOS devices.

Finally, Apple is adding a new programming language for iOS they call Swift. The programming language will provide hardware access and is more like scripting languages than the Object-C that developers now use to write apps for iOS.

The risks of Apple providing more access to the operating system and hardware as they announced today is that users may see an impact to battery life and security. Used incorrectly, deeper level APIs could lead to apps spawning processes that consumer higher amounts of battery life than normal.

Many security vulnerabilities are accidents caused by developers making programming errors that have unexpected consequences. Does a programming language optimized to provide high performing apps on the iPhone also provide better tools for hackers? Ironically, during the keynote Tim Cook took a jab at Android for malware vulnerabilities.

My point is that the “protections” that in the past Apple has lifted up as a feature of iOS over its competitors are now at risk. The addition of features previously found on Android bring with it the same risks that exist on Android today, so in effect Apple seems to be trading what it once touted as their own competitive advantage to over come some of the advantages of its competition.

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More (Real) Personal Computing

The Code Conference, which is the reborn version of All Things D, occurred this past week and amongst those interviewed was Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. During the interview Satya made reference to the “more personal computing” era.

Apparently, some were confused by the reference, so after the interview Satya used Twitter to provide more explanation. By “more personal” Satya means:

Satya then elaborates on each item above:

Satya concludes: “The most powerful OS in the world is still the human being, that’s what drives us into the more personal computing era”

If you are a regular reader of this site, you might find what Satya is saying to be familiar. Using other terms, Satya describes what I have been calling real personal computing. The transformation of the definition of personal in personal computing from being a number, as in one person uses the computer at a time, to representing the type of computing that is done, computing that is enabled by software and the Internet across multiple devices.

In observation of the decline of tablet computing sales, Leo Laporte has been making the claim that we are in an a “post, post PC” era. Leo is equating “post PC” to tablets and believes people are concluding all they really need is a smartphone and a notebook or desktop computer.

My response to Leo is that there never really has been a post PC, as in the end of the PC, era. Instead what has really been happening ever since Apple introduced the iPhone is a transformation of what we have always understood personal computing to mean. The result is emergence of real personal computing, or in Satya’s words, more personal computing.

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