Wearable tech – will it take off?

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.

By Martin Belam

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.

Alerts device

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.

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.”

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.

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 possible screen.

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 your wrist.

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.