We are about to see a significant shift of focus in personal computing. The smartphone is fast approaching saturation. It’s gotten to the point where if your parents don’t have a smartphone that’s abnormal. There’s clearly two dominant players (Android and iOS) and a few has-beens and hangers-on (Blackberry and Windows). It’s also clear that despite the predictions we’re not going to see a repeat of the Windows vs Macintosh operating system wars, where one player ends up completely overwhelming the other. Less monopoly, more oligopoly. It’s also clear that the future is mobile. When the big, conservative, backward-looking banks are talking about “tablet banking”, you know that the future is already here – even if it’s not evenly distributed yet.
That’s no longer interesting though. What is interesting (to me at least) is what might happen next – and the “canary in the coal mine” for the smartphone is increasing screen sizes.
Apple made an interesting shift in screen sizes in the iPhones 6 and 6 plus. The screen size in the smallest new iPhone looks like it has degraded the one-handed experience, which was already maxed out with a 4″ screen. (Yes, I know there is a hack that shrinks the screen so you can reach the top controls, but the experience is clearly a backward step). Apple , of course, has very good data about the distribution of human hand size. Unlike the rest of the tech industry, Apple are obsessed with usability — especially at the hardware layer. In fact, Steve Jobs himself once referred to these phones as ‘Hummers’, adding that no-one was going to buy a phone that they couldn’t get their hand around.
So what is going on here? Why degrade the experience? I think there is more to this than the incremental improvement in battery life and additional content on the screen. For some, these trade-offs alone will be worth it. For the majority though, I find that hard to believe. I’m starting to think that the increase in size and degraded usability is intentional, a design choice. I think it’s a clear signal that Apple is planning a shift where the iPhone will eventually no longer be our primary computing device.
It’s also clear that the tablet format has stuttered somewhat. I’m seeing more iPad mini’s on the tube in London, and fewer of the iPad Air size. I’m sure that a lot of content creation will eventually shift to the tablet format, chewing away at the laptop. But the most interesting thing is just how much we can actually do on our phones. The bigger sizes will no doubt help with this, but the cannibalisation of the iPad Mini is pretty obvious. Not only does the carrier subsidies help here, but if there isn’t a big enough gap between the products, you’re unlikely to buy and use both. Our phones are becoming central to doing stuff.
It’s no longer personal
And that’s part of the problem. We can do so much more, but that can also be abused and misused. Notifications from games trying to draw you back in and increase their engagement is an abuse of this system. I’m sure we all hate those pop-up notifications asking for ratings. This is a double-edged sword – I don’t think there is any doubt that we are using our phones for a lot more than anyone ever believed was possible and they have made life significantly easier and more enjoyable for most of us. But what have we lost in this shift to this world?
To some extent, we don’t own our phones – they own us. The desire to check the various incoming signals from WhatsApp, iMessage, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, and even email can be consuming. For most of us, it has gotten to the point where the signal to noise ratio has degraded significantly. As we add more and more hosepipes to the flow of information we receive, we have become slaves to our phones.
So many business models revolve around eyeballs and the time spent engaged. New notifications methods send us a barrage of alerts that interrupt us and break the flow of our lives. Arguably the new notifications options have made this worse, and with the addition of widget-like interactivity with notifications we will be tempted to interact on demand. Yes we can tune the notifications, but how many people will actually do this? How many would know how to?
And even if we do, we seemingly can’t help ourselves. It is not abnormal these days to be in a room full of people where instead of interacting with each other, they are all busy checking their phones. It’s not just about availability either. These devices punctuate our existence, perforating nearly everything we do by poking holes in our state of being there. An always connected cloud has become very good at pushing information to our pockets and demanding our attention – leaving us drowning in the random arrival of zeros and ones.
It’s not important
Perhaps Apple recognise the problem that they (primarily?) have enabled. They can’t undo the ecosystem they have created and institute some centralised control that forces us to be present. There are situations where we want to be connected to everything that is going on that might matter to us – when extracting value from the constant flow of zeros and ones is hugely beneficial.
But perhaps it could provide us with a new primary, always on, always connected, always with you device where the interruptions can be minimised – allowing us to remain present more often. And where better to put this device than on your wrist?
Unlike our now all-powerful phones (2 billion transistors in your pocket??) it could be that the with the smaller screen-size and other limitations, the Apple watch will need to do a much better job of filtering the noise. We want to be connected, and sometimes we even want to be interrupted – but only if it’s really important. Interruptions from only those contacts we are truly close to. Perhaps Apple’s interest in Dave Morin’s Path is to better understand which of our social connections are truly important and intimate – the relationships that really matter.
Note also that Apple added a button dedicated to contacts. The famously minimalist and anti-button Apple added a button! This didn’t get much use during the keynote introducing the watch, so it may be that there is a service they have in development for this that we’re not yet aware of. It may simply be that Apple see’s connecting with those we are closest to is important enough that it deserves not only a button, but to invade the space on our wrist. And who better to drive this shift in focus from pocket computers to wrist computers than the company that has already proven adept at obsoleting it’s own products?
I’m starting to believe that one of the jobs-to-be-done by the Apple watch is to give us part of our lives back and give us more time. To allow us to be more present by improving the signal to noise ratio of the things that punctuate our being there, in the moment, rather than constantly distracted and interrupted. Perhaps this new, more personal computer will help us to leave the noise delivered to our phones in our bags. All the better to ignore them and actually live life.