Apple Watch: Transformative Technology or Passing Fad?

The following article recently appeared in Healthcare Information Management & Communications Canada, the journal of COACH, the association for Canadian health informatics professionals:

Earlier this spring (though it was to tell from the snow still on the ground) I had dinner with several stakeholders from a project on which I am currently working. One of my dining companions, it turns out, reads my columns and blog posts.

“So, what new gadget are you planning to buy next?”, he asked between the appetizers and the main course.

“The Apple Watch,” I replied without hesitation.

My dining companions did not share my enthusiasm for Apple’s latest product. Indeed, I am, at least among my friends and family, the only person with any interest in the Apple Watch.

The results of my informal poll are consistent with the results of a recent Reuters/Ipsos survey that found only 6% of U.S. adults plan to buy an Apple Watch. This same survey revealed that an additional 18% of respondents were “very” or “somewhat” interested in buying an Apple Watch while just over three quarters (76%) expressed no interest at all.

In the Reuters article in which the survey results were published, Van Baker, an analyst with information technology research and advisory firm Gartner, notes that “many potential buyers will end up holding off until the second version of the watch, likely to appear next year.”

Among my circle of friends and professional acquaintances, price and questionable value proposition were cited as major reasons for not considering purchase of an Apple Watch.

Steve Ranger, the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, notes in a recent ZDnet article that many of these same people who see little value in the Apple Watch also stated five years ago that “they would never buy a smartphone” for similar reasons. They are, he sarcastically quips, “the spiritual descendants of the people who thought the world would only ever need five computers.”

Mr. Ranger suggests that “just as the smartphone created new needs and fulfilled them, so will smartwatches.” They are not, he contends “just a smartphone shrunk down and strapped to your wrist” but “something new and different.”

So, what is the Apple Watch’s raison d’être? According to a Wired article entitled “iPhone Killer: The secret history of the Apple Watch”, smartphone users “are subject to the tyranny of the buzz – the constant checking, the long list of nagging notifications.” Kevin Lynch, Apple’s Vice-President of Technology, states in this article that the Apple Watch is intended to provide this level of engagement in “a way that’s a little more human, a little more in the moment when you’re with somebody.”

Technology columnist Farhood Manjoo offers a similar perspective in a New York Times article in which he reviews his recently acquired Apple Watch. “By notifying me of digital events as soon as they happened, and letting me act on them instantly, without having to fumble for my phone, the Watch became something like a natural extension of my body – a direct link, in a way that I’ve never felt before, from the digital world to my brain.”

After using the Apple Watch for a week, Mr. Manjoo notes that it has the potential to “address some of the social angst wrought by smartphones.” He predicts that the Apple Watch “could usher in the transformation of social norms just as profound as those we saw with its brother, the smartphone, except, amazingly, in reverse.”

A key ingredient in the transformative potential of the Apple Watch is the manner in which Apple’s Watch interacts with the wearer. While most computers to date, including smartphones, rely primarily on two senses – sight and sound – to convey information, Apple created what it calls a “taptic engine” for the Apple Watch to deliver physical sensations to the wearer’s wrist.

Haptics, the underlying technology on which Apple’s taptic engine is based, have seen limited use in consumer devices, mainly video game controllers. Brian Hall, a writer specializing in technology and culture, offers a succinct summary of haptic technology in a recent Macworld article:

Haptic technology—haptics—uses force upon the skin to deliver real-time tactile feedback. These physical sensations are created by tiny motors called actuators. Done right, haptics can mimic the feeling of a pin prick by a wearable that tracks your blood sugar, simulate the plucking of virtual guitar strings on a tablet screen, or re-create the physical recoil of a phaser from your favorite game controller.

In this same article, Mr. Hall suggests that haptics “may prove most useful, possibly revolutionary”. He contends that Apple, “with surprisingly little fanfare” has “embraced a new user interface” based on touch.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the potential of haptics, particularly as a notification technology. Fellow Canadian blogger Tim Wilson states in a recent blog post that “the Apple Watch sounds more like invasive nag” than a useful tool and seriously questions whether it is the “game-changer” that many people contend it will be.

Technology columnist Farhood Manjoo suggests that the Apple Watch, unlike the iPod or the iPhone, is not “suited for tech novices.” Instead, he suggests that “it is designed for people who are inundated with notifications coming in through their phones, and for those who care to think about, and want to try to manage, the way the digital world intrudes on their lives.”

Will I buy an Apple Watch? Yes, I have the same feeling about the Apple Watch as I did about the iPad when it was first announced. I think the Apple Watch is one of those devices that once you use it and integrate it into your daily activities, you will wonder how you did without it.

Are you considering purchase of an Apple Watch? Do you think that the Apple Watch is a transformative technology or a passing fad? Please share your thoughts by posting a comment


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