Rumors of the Apple iWatch continue to sprout. Google Glasses will soon be for sale. The “Internet of Things” and wearable computers are quickly transitioning from the realm of science fiction into our everyday reality. Very soon, sensors throughout our homes, on our pets and possibly inside our bodies, all monitored or even controlled by our smartphone, will be the norm. Imagine now if these were ad-subsidized devices, like Android or Kindle, offering no escape from the latest marketing pitch or sponsored social media update. Is this a tolerable future?
While many analysts doubt the ability of Apple to maintain its margins in the face of stiff competition from the likes of Google and Amazon, companies that sell hardware at cost and make it up on advertising and ‘content’, I think the opposite is true: We are on the cusp of a world where personal computing hardware will become increasingly more important and more profitable. This favors Apple. Moreover, as hardware and computing become increasingly smaller and more personal, the Google business model, which fully relies upon advertising, may simply become too intrusive to tolerate.
Tim Cook recently said Apple is not a hardware company. With iTunes and iCloud, retail, services and accessories revenue, Cook is technically correct. Nonetheless, Apple makes most of its revenues directly from hardware. Google CEO Larry Page prefers talking about “moonshots” and driving “10X” changes in our thinking. He doubtless understands, however, that his company makes nearly all its money – and has from the beginning – on advertising. Following the money helps us not only to properly value these companies, but serves as a lens into their future. I suspect we will quickly witness fundamental differences in the design philosophy and user experience from the new wearable computing products coming out of Apple and Google.
The next design battle will almost certainly not be about “skeuomorphism” versus “flat design”. Rather, monetizing hardware, the Apple way, versus monetizing data and advertising, the Google way, will set the stage for this next great battle.
As hardware becomes ever-more integrated with our physical self, will we dare rely on lesser hardware that is subsidized by advertising? Maybe. While many may reflexively assume that advertising is always bad, this need not be the case. The promise of Google is that it will provide us with the right information at the right time in the right format for the right device. In some cases, this may be an ad. The problem, of course, is that to succeed with such a mission, every user must hand over to Google an exponentially larger set of personal data, more personal than ever before: where we are, who we are with, what we are doing, how high is our blood pressure, how sad is our mood, how many calories in that muffin we weren’t supposed to eat. When will this become too much?
Advertising is not merely built upon data collection. It also requires interruption – what I call the “intrusive business model”. I think the most potentially intractable problem that Google faces in its quest to create connected, personal hardware devices, one that Apple is liberated from, is the fundamentally intrusive nature of its business model. We may all “search” for information, but that does not necessarily mean we want to be bombarded with ads. Ads are already everywhere, it seems; within our (free) apps and games, on Google maps, scattered across web pages, inside YouTube videos, and more and more on the Google search page. Where does this end?
I don’t want my Google Glasses, for example, to pop up ads right in my eye, nor have a commercial play some catchy jingle into the sensor I keep in my ear. I don’t want my iWatch clone, for example, to vibrate every time it thinks I might be interested in some deal or datapoint – when in fact, it’s really because the sender – the intruder – is making money off stealing my attention. As computing becomes increasingly more personal, there is a very real chance that Google’s business model becomes increasingly more intrusive.
Apple is almost the exact opposite of intrusive. What is iPad but a beautiful pane of glass that we operate with the touch of a finger. Complexity vanishes. We are free from intrusion. This is the case for Apple software as well. Consider that both iOS and Mac OS place the focus squarely on, well, focus – and not on multitasking, alerts, notifications and other intrusive messaging forms.
There is an obvious tension here, and it may favor Google. With Apple products, when you want data, you swipe the screen, for example, or beckon Siri. Consider Android versus iPhone differences. Notifications, reminders, alerts, home screen messages and the like are all much more readily presented and visible with Android. Apple’s model favors waiting for the user to seek and request data. For advertising, I absolutely favor the Apple way. But not all data is advertising. In many instances, we want immediate ‘glanceability’ for real-time information. Sometimes, when the data is truly what we need, we want to be intruded upon. I want my maps app to tell me that the road ahead is jammed – even if I am on the telephone. Or, as in the case of a Fitbit bracelet, for example, I may ultimately want to be reminded over and over again to do my exercise for the day. This form of data intrusion favors Google.
The question for Google, though, is can they truly intrude upon our personal space only when we really want or need the intrusion? For a company that has made all its money over the years by flashing advertisement upon advertisement across every one of our screens, I have serious doubts.
Through patent filings, we know that Apple has been working on wearable computing devices for at least several years. Such devices can continuously record our heart rate, monitor our environment, potentially know us better than our friends and doctors. As our devices learn more and more about us, know more of our likes, habits – and needs – there will be a great debate on when and why to ‘intrude’ upon the user. Google plasters extraneous information across all their products and services because their business model demands this. Crossing that ‘intrusive’ line will likely become too enticing for them, I suspect, pushing more and more users to Apple and its “expensive” hardware. Apple, however, needs to understand that sometimes, in some cases, intrusion is good.