Is wearable tech the next big thing, or will it prove to be something of a damp squib? Apple’s recent entry into the smartwatch market has certainly shaken things up a bit. Martin Belam ponders the potential for publishers.
One of the nice things about the regular election cycle in the UK is that it provides a handy benchmark to look at how publishing technology has changed.
The 2015 election landscape was very different for digital publishers from the election in 2010. In 2010, Snapchat didn’t exist, the iPad had barely been
launched, and WhatsApp was only a few months old. It would have been considered ludicrous in 2010 to prioritise the design for mobile phones over the
desktop experience, and Flash was a perfectly decent technology for making interactives.
Now, having just finished covering the 2015 election, it is interesting to look at what is emerging in the digital publishing marketplace and ponder
whether these are things that might make a significant contribution to publishing by the time of the next scheduled UK election in 2020.
And, currently, one of the most interesting areas of development is wearable tech.
Samsung has had these kinds of devices on the market for a couple of years now, but Apple’s long anticipated entry into the smartwatch market has brought a
renewed focus on the technology.
If there is one thing publishers should have learnt by now, it is that giving a new type of technology to users unlocks a whole new set of behaviours and
publishing opportunities. In retrospect, it is easy to see that the introduction of the iPhone into the market wasn’t about putting a new phone into
people’s pockets, but about putting a very powerful little computer into their hands, that also happened to make calls.
And so the key question for publishers is what kind of behaviours will emerge around smartwatches and other wearable devices?
Some of the earliest - and keenest - smartwatch adopters were those who helped crowdfund the development of the Pebble watch. Speaking to those users
suggests that publishers may struggle to make much of an impression in this space.
“Smart watches are all about notifications more than anything else.”
Hillel Fuld, CMO at Zula, says that he mostly uses his Pebble watch for discretely catching up with notifications and email, which was a common theme with
all the Pebble users I spoke to.
As developer Kirk Northrop put it: “Smart watches are all about notifications more than anything else. It's more a ‘shall I get my phone out of my pocket’
decision making device.”
The Guardian’s executive editor of digital, Aron Pilhofer, also sees notifications as a big usage driver for watches: “It’s a truism bordering on cliché to
say wearables are going to be the next big thing for publishers. There's no doubt we need to be present on these devices because it is what our readers
expect. I am less excited about products like Apple Watch for content delivery - at least right now. I am far more excited about the potential for what you
might think of as meta content - like notifications. Not news per se, but different ways to alert people to things they consider important.”
Pilhofer recognises that the current publisher approach to notifications is probably not right for these devices.
“Notifications in most newsrooms right now are a fairly blunt instrument - a kind of all-or-nothing thing. But, increasingly, these devices can support far
more nuanced forms of notification, personalised down to the individual user and their given context: where they are, what time of day it is, what sort of
news it is, etc.”
This is going to be a key issue for publishers. The phone is already an intimate personal device - many people sleep with their phone by their bedside. It
is the last thing they look at when they go to bed, and the first thing they pick up and look at when they wake up.
“Persistent notifications on your wrist could become a mind-numbing distraction.”
Sending the wrong signals?
The watch is, if anything, more personal and intimate. And it carries with it a pre-defined set of social behaviours which it will be interesting to see
develop. Repeatedly looking at your watch - in the UK at least - is taken socially as a sign that you are bored. A constant stream of notifications
arriving on your wrist risks making you look rather anti-social.
Kevin Delaney, editor-in-chief of Quartz, believes that constantly pushing notifications at the user may be very unwelcome. “You run a risk”, he said, “of
alienating your user with irrelevant information, and pushing them towards unsubscribing.”
“Apple’s entry into the market is likely to spur on further innovation.”
Persistent notifications on your wrist could become a mind-numbing distraction. A joke image doing the rounds at the time of the iWatch’s announcement saw
someone draw the shape of a smartwatch on their wrist with pen, and write on the fake screen “You always have mail”.
However, when Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times reviewed the device, he found that the opposite was the case. He said that once he got used to the device
“the Watch became something like a natural extension of my body” and a direct link from the digital world to his brain. His wife told him that he “seemed
to be getting lost in [his] phone less than in the past. She found that a blessing.”
But publishers will really have to fight for the space to get their apps on watches and wearable devices.
When PC Advisor rated their top ten Apple iWatch apps upon launch, ESPN was the only “publisher” to make the cut. The rest of the recommendations were
based around quick input – eg: Evernote, notifications of events and the weather around you, for example, a star guide that will prompt you as things are
about to become visible overhead, and functional tasks like CityMapper’s journey direction, or Runtastic’s tracking of your exercise.
Choosing the right words
The form factor of the watch will force publishers to think carefully about the format of the messages they are trying to deliver. The New York Times
issued a rather haughty press release suggesting they had developed a new form of story-telling - “the one sentence story”. A cynic might suggest what
they’ve actually invented are decent headlines for their story, away from their usual formula of, “Area man glances at watch, imbibes information”.
When I helped design the Guardian’s first iPhone app, we weren’t in a position to influence editorial workflow. That meant we had to decide to truncate
headlines where they over-ran two lines on the homepage. This led to some awkward moments - not least when the headline “Ken Clarke apologises for rape
comments” got truncated to “Ken Clarke apologises for rape…” which is a very different story indeed.
Publishers looking to enter the notifications and update market on the phone really need to work on a content strategy that gets the content in the right
format, and doesn’t overwhelm the user.
“The key question for publishers is what kind of behaviours will emerge around smartwatches and other wearable devices?”
Will smartwatches evolve into full content delivery?
You can sometimes glean a good idea of how adults are going to play with technology by watching how kids use a similar device. Children are often less
inhibited by the worry that they can “break” something, or do “the wrong thing”.
Entertainment seems likely to be a strong eventual usage driver for adults and kids alike. My daughter is five, and has a small VTech kids “smartwatch”. It
has a few games, but notably one of the first things she tried to do was to use the watch’s ability to film a video.
And what did she try and film?
She pointed it at the laptop and tried to film something that she was watching on YouTube. It seemed to her an obvious way to try and capture a pop video
so she could watch it when she liked on her wrist, rather than have to rely on getting access to her mother’s laptop.
Will people really watch content on their wrist on a tiny screen?
Who knows. We’ve seen time and time again with technology that “convenience” will triumph over quality - the nearest possible screen is often the best
Apple’s recent announcements about iOS 9 already promise that the next update will add the ability to display short-form video and access audio directly
from the watch rather than via the connected phone. And apps are going to be able to be loaded directly to the watch, rather than the initial clunky
arrangement where an app had to be installed on your phone rather than run natively on the watch.
Watches aren’t going to be the only wearable tech
Google Glass may be the poster-child for geeky wearable tech failures, and there will surely be many missteps along the way, but watches are not going to
be the only wearable tech. Personal health will be a big driver for devices and apps, and it is not difficult to imagine a world where earpieces and
wrist-bands and all manner of small devices are capable of alerting the wearer.
Apple’s entry into the market is likely to spur on further innovation. Some of the features in iOS 9 are very similar to features that already existed in
‘Android Wear’ - and just as companies like Samsung and Apple pit themselves against each other in the phone market, we can expect the same competition on
It should be good news publishers - another screen with which to potentially attract eyeballs to your content. Whether it is a sustainable platform or more
of a passing fad like Google Glass remains to be seen.
“We’ve seen time and time again with technology that “convenience” will triumph over quality.”