A Confederacy of Devices

Once upon a time, in or around 2014 and 2015, wearables were set to be the next big category in technology. That future never really came to pass. Fitness trackers have ended up gathering dust in people’s drawers and no longer seem worthy of comment. And then there are smart watches and the category-defining (or owning) Apple Watch. Apple is estimated to have sold 25 million units in 2018. It’s a wearable but its popularity at a time when the world of wearables is in decline, suggests it’s something more too.

This piece reflects on our experience of spending some time with an Apple Watch. We don’t focus on the finer executional details (being an Apple creation these are unsurprisingly tight and there’s no shortage of other articles doing exactly this). Instead we explore what the Watch might portend in terms of a future of distributed devices. Our claim is that the Apple Watch is a beachhead into a new way of thinking about computing.

Whither the Watch?

Naoto Fukasawa, the renowned Japanese designer, once spoke of “design dissolving into behaviour.” In some ways the Watch dissolves. When not being used it presents itself as a small slab of dark glass without illumination. Even the silicone band feels remarkably at one with the skin. In interaction design respects it largely follows British designers Tom Coates and Matt Jones’s 2008 injunction to be polite, pertinent and pretty.

The interactions it affords are subtle. Its vibrations are perfectly calibrated and differentiated. It enables the sort of glancing interactions that make its wearers claim that they can be present with their surroundings and not divert their attention. Unlike our phones it doesn’t behave in a persistently grabby way. It seems to know its place.

Of course, in other respects it does the opposite of dissolve away. It screams Apple. Rather than being a piece of highly differentiated jewellery, a personal style signifier or fashion accoutrement, it is a chunk of mass market technology on your wrist. It also demands attention, like a slightly insecure pet. It wants its ‘rings’ completed. It suggests you stand. Or Breathe.

Yet on balance it is receptive to being put in its place. We all found that after a few days the novelty fades and it settles back into being a watch, something whose core job is to tell the time. And yet it still feels like a Watch plus something else.

Watch + ?

What ‘something else’ is it? It’s an activity tracker, a wallet, a giver of directions, a remote control for skipping songs, a deliverer of messages (from friends, loved ones, ride sharing apps and companies trying to sell to you), and much else besides.

It can do all of these things because it is an endpoint in a wider network of services nestled in the Apple ecosystem. Yet think beyond the confines of ecosystems and the Watch becomes a node in a world that looks like it is conforming to the vision outlined by Mark Weiser.

In 1991, computer scientist Mark Weiser, a manager at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre in California, wrote what was to become a highly influential contribution to the field of computer science. In his Scientific American piece “The computer for the 21st century'' (pdf) Weiser imagined a third age of computing where computing is not ‘on the mainframe’, nor just in desktop devices, but distributed across an environment in hundreds or even thousands of devices. His vision of what became known as ubiquitous (‘Ubicomp’) or pervasive computing has animated the technology world ever since. And if you’ve got a wireless speaker, a connected thermostat on the wall or a voice-controlled device like Amazon Echo on your kitchen counter, then you’re living in a pervasive computing world. Computing has become a feature of the environment we live in.

Typically, we think of pervasive computing as computing in the environment, but we believe that smart watches, and what’s left of the wearables category, should be seen as part of this ongoing shift towards ubicomp.

However, we also think that wearables like the Watch are a harbinger of the idea that computing, even computing that is on or near the body, can take many different forms. Thinking of the Watch as a watch, or even as a smart watch is correct but doesn’t quite get to the whole truth. 

A loose confederation of co-operating devices

The Watch is a computer that forms part of a loose confederation of co-operating devices. The relationship between these devices is informed by the ecosystems and services that connect them.

Each device in this confederation has different capabilities — some multiplex, some singular — and affordances that lend themselves to certain interactions or uses better than others. Some, like the connected thermostat, will do only limited things, others offer more potential.

What device you use and how you interact with it depends on what you’re doing. The Watch lends itself to glancing at a surface, compared to the phone which is full input/output. Bluetooth earbuds (like Airpods) provide aural input but allow for voice control too.

The mistake of the smart device or wearable prophets, like other false prophets before them, was to claim computing would be monopolistic: a single device for (almost) everything. That claim has been made for a succession of devices from laptops and tablets to phones. What the Watch clearly shows is that there will be no single ‘endpoint’ where computing comes to reside. Instead computing is becoming ever more distributed. Wireless grids where devices can borrow computing from each other will further entrench this shift and 5G will accelerate it.

No longer is computer a noun, nor computing even, or just a verb. Instead computing is quality of objects. That quality, and the capabilities it affords, are intimately related to the connections it has with other devices within its reach. Looking ahead, the development of powerful xR devices will likely require computing capability to sit in places other than our faces. The Watch, whatever its other qualities, is a beachhead into that distributed computing future and the millions of wearers of these devices are being readied for this future of confederated computing.

// Simon Roberts, Calen Cole, Will Buckley