Apple and Intimate Computing

on March 5, 2015

I’ve been speaking to a few reporters ahead of next week’s Apple event, where we’re all expecting Apple to unveil additional details on the Apple Watch ahead of a launch in April. One of the themes from the original launch event I’ve been referring back to is this concept of more intimate computing that Apple talked about. It’s there in Apple’s marketing materials for the Apple Watch on too:

And since Apple Watch sits on your wrist, your alerts aren’t just immediate. They’re intimate…

A more immediate, intimate way to connect…

It’s a simple and intimate way to tell someone how you feel…

It also enables some entirely new, intimate ways for you to communicate with other Apple Watch wearers…

One of the big questions I’ve been asked during these conversations with reporters, and something a number of people asked after the original event was, how Apple would sell this to consumers? I’ve written previously about the role of these Apple keynotes, and the fact that these aren’t Apple’s main pitch to consumers. In fact, very few of those in Apple’s addressable market will ever watch these presentations. But when it comes to how Apple will pitch the Apple Watch, both next week and beyond, I think this concept of intimacy will be a big deal. So what exactly does Apple mean by this, and how does it manifest itself?

Personal devices truly become personal

One of the funny things about our smartphones is they’re at the same time incredibly personal devices and yet not very personal at all in other ways. On the one hand, we carry them with us almost everywhere we go, they’re tied to our personal identities, they carry much of our most personal information, and they’re the way we communicate with those nearest and dearest to us. And yet when we talk on them we’re audible to those around us, when we get notifications others in the vicinity hear either pings or buzzes, they’re often secured and tracked by the companies we work for, we use them for the mundane and painful tasks in our lives as well as for the joyful ones, and so on.

What I think intimacy in computing really means is going a level deeper on the personal side, and perhaps also stripping away some of the non-personal elements of the smartphone. The Apple Watch, then, becomes the truly personal device our smartphones have never quite been. Notifications come in noiselessly, communication with our Apple Watch-wearing significant other can be both more private and more individualized, the tasks we do on the Apple Watch can be limited just to those that are meaningful to us, leaving others for the smartphone, and so on. Our smartphones have the potential to be all these things, but because they’re also the main devices on which we get things done, they lose some of that meaningfulness and our associations with them can be emotionally mixed. But a device you have with you all day, that becomes a chief means of communication with those nearest to you, that allows you to be truly in the moment in a way you can’t be when tied to a smartphone, that’s truly an intimate device.

Other devices have tried and failed

MG Siegler wrote about a year ago about a shift in the way he used his smartphone, which relates strongly to what I’m talking about here. He wrote about how he’d always kept his phone on silent or vibrate to avoid bothering those around him when notifications arrived and that he’d been using a Bluetooth headset which allowed him to hear all those pings out loud again without annoying anyone. In a way, he’d discovered an extension to his phone that allowed it to become, in some ways, more personal again. But, of course, the object in question was a gadget hung awkwardly on his ear. More recently, he followed that piece up with another quick thought about the Moto Hint, which is arguably the first mainstream Bluetooth headset that sits more subtly inside your ear. It somewhat solves the awkwardness problem and I think it’s a great evolution in headset design. But it continues to be mostly audible and is still visible from the side. Google Glass is another device which its creators described as something that should allow you to be more in the moment by putting what you cared about in your visual field, but it’s like a Bluetooth headset on steroids: obtrusively and obnoxiously filling not just your field of vision but also highly visible to everyone else.

What the Apple Watch does differently is present itself in a form factor that’s not just unobtrusive, but actually elegant. Tim Cook has drawn the contrast with Google Glass specifically in this context, and I think it’s a point worth making. The Apple Watch comes in a familiar form factor, one which doesn’t look awkward or even particularly gadget-like, unlike most of the smartwatches on the market today. It solves the fundamental issue of awkwardness associated with both headsets and Google Glass while simultaneously going quite a bit further in its functionality, much of it hidden most of the time both to the wearer and those around her.

Intimacy is a tough sell

The most challenging thing about all this is it’s not obvious as a selling point. We’re used to buying devices based on what they can do for us and we usually think about specific tasks. What’s difficult about this concept of intimacy is it’s not really necessarily about doing something new, but doing something differently. I’m curious to see how Apple pitches this in the event on Monday, but even more interested in seeing how they convey it through their advertising.

However, I think the key with the Apple Watch, as arguably with several previous products from Apple, is knowing someone who owns one and loves it. Because this is a new and unfamiliar category for most people, it’s going to take the early adopters experiencing it, finding out how it adds value to their lives, and then sharing with friends and family, to really make the Apple Watch value proposition come alive. I’ve no doubt we’ll see plenty on Monday about both the pre-installed apps from Apple and a handful of third party apps that show off what the Apple Watch is capable of. But I suspect intimacy will be a major theme again and I suspect Apple isn’t done inventing devices that push computing in this direction.