Keil Hubert: Watch What Happens

Now that his 2014 Summer Interviewing Series is over, Business Technology’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert wants everyone to stop freaking out over Apple’s new watch. Thanks.

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I waited for the furore to die down about the new Apple Watch before I wrote anything about it. Unfortunately, it looks like the hype and counter-hype tribes aren’t going to leave off it until the bloody thing finally ships… and turns out to be just another highly successful tech offering. Some people will love it, others will hate it, and most of the rest of us will try to get on with our lives. The Apple Watch won’t bring about peace in the Middle East, and likewise won’t become a humiliating money loser for Cupertino. It’s a clever bit of kit, it’ll find its niche, there will be scads of shabby imitators, Samsung will roll out a compelling competing version, and so on, as always. The Earth will keep turning. Some people living here will wear Apple Watches and other people will sneer at them.

I get it. I really do. Back when I was at university, I helped pay my way by working for the Computer Science department as an ‘Academic Computer Consultant’ (really great title for a tech support bloke). We had three kinds of computer labs on campus, because fewer than 10 per cent of students at the time could afford (or knew how to operate) a PC. We regularly had to deal with the three markedly distinct types of users: PC bullies, who lorded their superiority of DOS command line knowledge over all other ‘inferior’ users; insufferable Macintosh bigots, who couldn’t resist showing off their WYSIWYG [1] design features; and mainframe terminal killjoys, who ‘were totally using computers before they got cool’ and didn’t see any need for all those fancy ‘features’ and ‘utility.’ Us ACCs would regularly have to break up arguments (some of which nearly came to blows) between users of the warring tribes, especially at 2am on a Monday morning. Yes, there were monumental differences between the three types of computers at the time, and no one solution actually did the work of all three platforms, but the differences weren’t worth fighting over. And yet, people fought. And fought. And wouldn’t ever shut up about their preferences.

This summer’s Apple Watch hype is just a continuation of the same old computer preference tribalism from the ’80s. There are inherent flaws in the human psyche that make us all crave membership in groups; some people rally around sport franchises, which others self-identify with technology platforms. It’s just a natural way for people to try and figure out who they are (or who they imagine they want to be). The trick is, once a person chooses a side, they then tend to become passionate defenders of ‘their’ side’s virtue and start to viciously attack competitors’ attributes. [2]

Your pathetic devotion to the Command Line Interface is based on ... flawed arguments! Have at thee!

Your pathetic devotion to the Command Line Interface is based on… flawed arguments! Have at thee!

I watched Apple’s theatrical announcement where they introduced their new watch. I started getting nasty e-mails about how much the new iPhone 6 and Apple Watch ‘totally sucked’ from anti-Apple/pro-Android fanbois less than twenty minutes after the event ended.

‘Android had NFC capability two years ago,’ they ranted. ‘Samsung already has a smart watch.” And ‘Android phone makers have offered large-screen phones for years.’ I’d braced myself to receive a barrage of, ‘The grapes were probably sour anyways,’ complaints from the usual crew, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I get it. When you’ve sworn your loyalty to one brand, any progress that a rival brand makes will be perceived as a direct threat at the validity of your irrational faith. As I chided one fellow, ‘why can’t you just appreciate the improvements in the Apple product line for what they are – improvements – instead of dreaming up bizarre reasons to crap all over a product that you don’t have, won’t buy, and doesn’t affect your life in the slightest?’ As expected, the fellow couldn’t marshal a coherent counter-argument.

When it’s all said and done, the new watch-form computer is Apple’s first-generation attempt to explore new product territory. We’re pretty much guaranteed to find at the end of its first year on the market that it falls embarrassing short in some areas (battery life, maybe?) and dazzles in unexpected niches (painlessly paying for parking in London with Apple Pay, probably). We went though all of this when Apple introduced the first iPhone – back then, insufferable BlackBerry users heaped mountains of scorn on the new phone and announced that it was an utter failure that would never any market share. For crap’s sake… It’s a small computer, not a reliquary. No one needs to be burned at the stake over it. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. If it has a feature that your phone doesn’t, just relax… if the feature is any good, your platform’s manufacturer will copy that new features in their next release.

I haven’t gotten to play with one of the new watches yet, which exactly matches my experience with the Samsung Galaxy Gear watch. I also haven’t met anyone who played with either technology. I realize that that the Apple model hasn’t shipped yet, so that’s no surprise; the Galaxy Gear has been out for a year now, and I’ve never seen anyone wearing one. I had to look up Wikipedia’s article on this just to remind me what the product line was called, and this paragraph at the top was telling:

The Galaxy Gear was released to a generally negative reception; it was criticized for the lackluster design of its interface, the inadequate implementation of some of its software, the few apps available, its poor battery life, and its dependency on Samsung Galaxy phones and tablets.

I find it really funny that most all the criticisms that I’ve heard predicted for the Apple Watch exactly match the real-world flaws of its Samsung precursor (e.g., user interface, limited battery life, platform dependency). Hey, here’s a thought: maybe it’s damned difficult to make a computer fit in the space we normally associated with a wristwatch. No matter where they work, the engineers responsible with making the product work have to make design compromises. That these things work at all is a minor miracle.

'Right. So, all we need to do is to compress this fifth kilogram server into a form factor the size of pound coin. No problem.'

‘Right. So, all we need to do is to compress this fifth kilogram server into a form factor the size of pound coin. No problem.’

Speaking for me and me alone, I have a very short list of features that I’d like to see on the Apple Watch. If it has these features and they work adequately, I’ll call it a success – and I might even feel alright dropping two hundred quid on one:

  • I want it to pay attention to my schedule and silently remind me when it’s time to leave my current meeting to get to my next one.
  • I want it to surreptitiously alert me when someone on my VIP list sends me a new text or e-mail.
  • I want my co-workers to be able to covertly get my attention in meetings. If we can devise a simple alert code, it’ll allow us to attack or retreat as-needed as a synchronized team.

If I can do all three of those things without being seen fondling my bloody phone, then that’s worth a small stack of bills to me, since I can’t do that with a phone – any manufacturer’s phone – during a meeting today. The early BlackBerry adopters screwed that up for everyone; in the modern American office, many bosses get irate if they catch you sneaking a glance at your mobile. It’s considered insufferably rude. Even if you’re just checking the time, it looks like you’re trying to goof off. Heck, I refused to let my employees break out their phones once I formally kicked off a meeting. There was always at least one fool who thought that they could play Brick Breaker on their phone and pay attention to what I was saying (they were wrong).

Further, the ‘vibrate’ mode on every phone model that I’ve used only has one setting (e.g., BUZZZZ!). With a phone in my pocket, I can’t differentiate between a call, a text, an appointment reminder, or an alert, which means I either have to check it every single time it goes off, or ignore it. Give me a device that solves that problem for me, and I’ll call it success. If I can program the so-called ‘Taptic Engine’ to differentiate between inputs with a Morse code like series of specific tap codes (e.g., one tap for a calendar reminder, two for a co-worker interrupt, maybe a long-short-long chord for an incoming text, etc.) then I’ll use on the device to keep me on top of my game.

It’s pretty likely that the compelling feature that makes the smart watch indispensable to modern life hasn’t been developed yet. The first thing that I thought of when I watched the announcement was an application that monitors your heart rate and movement speed and compares them to your established patterns – if you suddenly start sprinting during a time of day when you don’t ever exercise, the app might intuit that your atypical behaviour means that you’re running from imminent danger (e.g., fleeing a mugging) and bring a one-button ‘call 999’ option to the screen. Or maybe the app will use the speaker to ask if you need help, and will then call 999 for you (passing along your geographic coordinates) if you don’t (or can’t) respond.

'Actually, lady, I don't want your money... I just want your iPhone charger.'

‘Actually, lady, I don’t want your money… I just want your iPhone charger.’

Heck, tie your watch into Apple’s CarPlay platform while you’re driving and let the car’s sensors give you a sharp electric shock when you start to doze off while driving. That might save thousands of lives a year. Heck, your car insurance company might buy you a properly-equipped smartwatch as a prophylactic initiative. Spend £200 to potentially save £200,000? Sounds like a darned fine investment.

I think that it’s highly likely that some clever boffin will figure out how to use the Apple Pay NFC technology to regulate access to high-security portals inside buildings. I worked on a project several years back that involved trying to use ID cards with RFID chips and PKI certificates to unlock doors and log access to data centres. The Apple Watch might make this easier: when an authorized user approaches a restricted-access door, he or she authenticates entry with a £1 transaction (like putting a coin into a pay toilet, but authenticated with user biometrics); when they leave, the door ‘returns’ their quid so that they’re not actually ‘out’ any money… but the act of holding that deposit conditions the user to authenticate again on the way out (in order to get their money back) which significantly increases the accuracy of entry and egress logging.

Honestly, there’s no telling at this stage what the killer app will be for the Apple Watch. The only way to find out is to release the product into the marketplace, let the developers and hackers play with it, and see what people do with it. If it solves more problems than it inflicts, it’ll be a qualified success… and then we’ll all have to upgrade to version 2, just like we do with our bloody phones.

In the end, though, please remember that it’s just a bit of shiny kit. Can we all please dispense with the irrational partisanship and get back to work? Ta.

[1] ‘What You See Is What You Get’ user interface design. Early Macintosh users could see their font selections for a document drawn on screen so that their final printed output looked (more or less) the same as it did during design. At the time, DOS word processors didn’t have that feature, so final output was often quite different in practice that it was in the writer’s imagination.

[2] Along this line of argument, I strongly advise you to skim Douglas Van Praet’s article ‘7 Unconscious Errors We Make When Buying Brands’ over at Psychology Today.

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his book on IT interviewing at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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