v27 #2 Op Ed – Defined by Form Factor

by | Jun 5, 2015 | 0 comments

by Michael P. Pelikan  (Penn State)  <[email protected]>

At the time of this writing, the “Webisphere” is breathlessly agog (its customary posture).  The object of this Thud and Blunder?  It is, arguably, a timepiece.  Wait.  Is it a timepiece?

A couple of the top headlines on the topic, pulled directly from Google News this morning:

Apple Watch shows the strategic ripple effects of a big splash”

Xiaomi to Take on Apple Watch With Round-Dial, Premium-Looking Smartwatch”

Leaving that first headline aside for the moment, let’s consider the second.  The word “watch” appears twice in that headline, once with a single modifier, “Apple Watch,” then a second time with several modifiers, “Round-Dial, Premium-Looking Smartwatch.”  We see the battle lines drawn:  to confront the seriousness of the emergence on the field of battle of anything called simply the “Apple Watch,” it requires, at the very least, a “Round-Dial, Premium-Looking Smartwatch.”  “Round-Dial,” for product differentiation, and “Premium-Looking,” because it had must be, if it aspires to consideration next to what all acknowledge will certainly be a “Premium” device.

But what is a watch (let alone a Smartwatch)?

The first devices referred to as “watches” appeared in the 17th century.  Wikipedia credits the derivation of the word “watch” to refer to a timepiece either to;  a) the Old English word “woecce” (watchman, who used a timepiece to keep track of their shifts;  or b) 17th century sailors using a timepiece to keep track of their “watches.”

At any event, those first portable timepieces were about the size of a modern alarm clock with the two bells on top — whoops — I mean, your Grandmother’s alarm clock with the two bells on top.  Imagine wearing one of those on a chain around your neck, never mind your wrist.  You’d look about as cool as the fellow from Motorola who placed the first cellular phone call in 1973, holding to the side his face a device largely reminiscent of a cowboy boot.

But that was a phone, right?  Because you spoke over a distance with it:  “Tele…” plus “…phone.”  We’ve gone over this before.  The similarities between the digital, network-connected, data-ravenous devices we carry in our pockets today and even the first cellular phones, purely analog in character, are truly very few.  You can, should you choose, carry on a conversation over a distance with today’s “phone,” but so you can also with my laptop computer — and nobody calls that a phone, do they?

One certainty:  just as with your phone, you’ll have to charge your Smartwatch each and every night.

And that’s something to keep in mind when the ether is suffused with commentary about how the new technology is “revolutionary.”  “Revolutionary” would be a battery for your watch, or your phone, or your tablet, or your laptop, that would last as long as, say, the battery in your watch.  Wait.  I mean, the battery in your Smartwatch lasting as long as the battery in your watch.

“Revolutionary” was the introduction, in 1657, of the balance spring to the balance wheel, credited to either Robert Hooke or Christiaan Huygens.  That change resulted in reducing mechanical error in time keeping from hours per day to minutes per day.  It was also the central piece of technology that ushered in a new method of global navigation, by enabling calculation of longitude by chronometer, a desperate need met by the development by John Harrison, during the first half of the 18th century, of a series of “Sea Clocks.”  Harrison’s work was elevated to the equivalent of a State Secret:  when his second Sea Clock was ready to take beyond on-land testing, Britain was at war with Spain (the War of Austrian Succession), so testing could not take place, lest the invention fall into Spanish hands.  Over his lifetime, Harrison received monetary awards from Parliament totaling £23,065 — in 18th century British Pounds Sterling.  Greenwich became the site through which the Prime Meridian extended as a result of British ascendancy in navigational calculation.

Watch design remained recognizable until 1959, the year Seiko placed an order with a newly formed daughter company call Epson for Project 59A, the development of a watch movement governed by the vibration of a quartz crystal using the piezoelectric effect.  Such a vibration is at a very stable frequency.  Coupling this regulator to a mechanical movement with hands resulted in the unveiling, in time for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, at which Seiko quartz movements were used for the timing of all events.

The first digital electronic watch was the Pulsar, prototyped in 1970.  Wikipedia cites statements by John Bergey, head of the Hamilton Watch Company’s Pulsar division, as saying he was inspired by the then-futuristic digital clock that Hamilton made for use in the film 2001, A Space Odyssey.  The first Pulsar watch became commercially available on April 4, 1972, in 18-carat gold, for the entirely reasonable sum of $2,100.  It had a red LED display, and displayed the time of day.  Such trinkets were out of reach for those of us serving “before the mast.”  Pulsar was sitting pretty, at least until 1975, when Texas Instrument introduced a mass-produced digital watch in a plastic case for $20, reduced to $10 in 1976, a year which, “…saw Pulsar lose $6 million and the Pulsar brand sold to Seiko,” according to Wikipedia.

But all of these devices were straightforward time keepers, and little or nothing more.  Remember the Casio calculator watch?  How about the Timex Datalink watch?  These were each evolutionary, if not revolutionary, steps forward.

Note also the influence of fiction on product design.  The digital clock in 2001 is at the very least matched by the introduction, on January 13, 1946, of the “2-way Wrist Radio” worn and used by Dick Tracy.  This hugely influential design was supplanted in 1964 by the 2-Way Wrist TV.

To fulfill its potential, that watch, excuse me, that “Smartwatch,” is going to need network connectivity.  It’s also going to need to know whom it serves — that means it’s going to be on the network as you, or at least, as “your” Smartwatch.  The only way this won’t be true is if it relies on some other device for network access — your phone, for example.  But that would be regarded, I would guess, as only a limited, short-term, non-optimal solution.  No, I would say, as envisioned, both your Smartwatch and your phone will require network access — indeed, if they’re something to say to each other, they’ll say it over the network, rather than over some short-distance, point-to-point connection.  I may be wrong about this.  Maybe these devices will set up a side-long connection over Bluetooth or Near Field connection.  We’ll see how it all works out.

Another aspect of wearable devices worth considering is the challenge (or opportunity) they present in terms of user interface design.  Properly done, a fresh approach to how a user interacts with a device can extend to overthrow common conceptions about what a user can do with a device.  In the case of a computer on your wrist, and in the context of Against the Grain, the first thing that comes to mind is text-to-voice.  eBooks are tiny, and use very little bandwidth in comparison with the depth and richness of their content (excluding a number of popular bestsellers, that is).  Perhaps the rise of the worn device will usher in a fresh look at the licensing of text-to-voice as a mode for content presentation.  Don’t be misled, however.  Today’s headlines also speak of Apple’s efforts to stand up a television service.  Does anyone think, if today’s high school and college student adopt “Smartwatches” to the extent they’ve adopted cell phones, that they won’t be watching YouTube on them?  And that brings us to networking — not what you do on Linked-In, but what those administrators run at your company or in your building.

“Fashion disaster:  What the launch of Apple Watch could mean for the health of your network”

This last one is the headline on a thoughtful article by Jeremy Cowan on the m2mnow.com Website.

Cowan is a network administrator.  “Keeping networks up and running is my business, and so anything that will connect to them piques my interest,” says Cowan.  He cites a recent survey of European businesses in which 36% of those business polled expect “wearable technology” to come into the workplace this year, but, he notes, “Only 13% of the IT professionals we spoke to have given consideration to how this will affect their IT policies.”

It is a telling fact that around a third of those surveyed expect “wearable technology” to connect to their networks this year.  Surely, more than a third of them have had reason to be familiar with issues surrounding “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device).  And yet only 16% have given any thought to how a significant bump in the number of devices trying to access their networks may effect network administration.  What will happen when folks want to open a Skype session on their Smartwatch, or watch YouTube, or watch the Olympics?

The only consolation may be in headlines like this last one:

Apple Inc.’s Watch Not on Shopping List of Most Americans, According To Poll.”


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