The comment that "a smartwatch is a solution in search of a problem" has become something of a cliché in recent months. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that – clichés are always useful to the media, which gets almost unbelievable mileage out of phrases like "preaching to the choir" and "singing from the same hymn sheet" (there's no need to ask why these are the clichés at the forefront of my mind in the days following an Apple launch event).
I like a good cliché as much as anyone who isn't the Independent's John Rentoul, but I start to worry when that cliché hardens into dogma - which seems to be what's happened when it comes to smartwatches and the "a solution in search of a problem."
In recent weeks I've read smartwatch discussion pieces on the Register, ZDNet, Businessweek and Digital Spy, and all of them trotted out the solution/problem dichotomy. The influence on the tech-savvy public is undoubtable: one or more commenters are now guaranteed to deploy the solution/problem bomb below the line on any page where a journalist has made the case for or against smartwatches.
The idea that is now so widespread that it isn't being questioned as it should. Journalists, bloggers and members of the public are simply accepting its rightness and moving onto the question of whether people are going to buy a smartwatch in order to be current, look coo or fund Tim Cook's next yacht purchase.
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But I do think it needs to be questioned, because from where I'm sitting, there is a problem. And where I'm sitting is a restaurant, and I'm in a quandary because I want to have a sly look at my phone without seeming rude. Or I'm walking along and using a navigation app, and having to stare at my phone for too long, grip it until my palm starts sweating, or take it out of my pocket and put it back again constantly.
Or I'm shopping and I miss a flash offer notification that comes up on my smartphone screen which, unfortunately, is tucked in my blazer pocket. Or I'm in the cinema, and want to know who's trying to get hold of me without having to take my phone out, activate the back-light, and disturb other cinemagoers. Or I'm in a job interview and I want to impress whoever I'm talking to with the idea that time and timeliness matter to me, by wearing a handsome looking watch. Problems all - and problems that a smartwatch could and does solve.
Smartwatches do have purpose
So let's not let it go when someone says that smartwatches have little or no utility. Even if that were true, the launch of the Apple Watch means that smartwatches are here to stay – at least for the next tech cycle. And that means that consumer brands need to start thinking about how they're going to colonise the watch-face – in addition to the smartphone display – in the few months they've got until the official launch of the device in Q1 2015.
The first port of call for those brands will be a meeting room (where they'll discuss whether they want to use the Apple Watch to extend their existing App Store play or do something entirely different). Their second port of call will no doubt be Apple's WatchKit platform, which gives developers the tools to create everything from custom watch faces to brand new bespoke Apple Watch apps.
As my list of Apple Watch "problems" above suggests, the main opportunity that Apple's new wearable offers to brands relates to notifications. Specifically, the Apple Watch will allow brands to increase the potency of their mobile notifications. This, in turn, should force them to focus on increasing the contextual relevance of those notifications - if a message appears on a watch it's got to appear at the right time, in the right place, and in the correct context. Consumers will unforgivingly delete apps which fail any of these tests.
In many ways the launch of the Apple Watch will not change the way brands do business over mobile – the vast majority of brands have long-term mobile strategies and are comfortable with the speed and ways that those strategies need to evolve with the consumer hardware market. It is 2014 after all. But the existence of the Apple Watch will make it much harder for brands to get away with having a laissez-faire or hit-and-miss attitude to targeting users. For that reason alone - and whether or not you think the Apple Watch is looking for a problem to solve - Apple has done us all a big favour.
As an app developer and someone involved in creating apps for brands, I'm tremendously excited by the Apple Watch - and indeed, the whole smartwatch category. It's a new, invitingly blank, canvas for all of us to paint our ideas on - just as the original iPhone once was. While the press and thought-leaders say "nay," the inventors and visionaries are already working on the apps that will define the product over the next five years.
- Sam Clark is CEO of software developer Conjure.
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