Thinking About What Smartwatches Can Do Well

In other words, what are they good for? What’s the smartwatch killer app?

Let’s assume that the original killer app for the wristwatch (and pocket watch, and other, more obscure form factors thus far ignored by Apple and its ilk) was telling time. I think we can also assume that telling time is in the “been there, done that” rear view mirror view of smartwatch software development, and that the platform is searching for its killer app.

This may be parochial, provincial, a symptom of technical tunnel vision, but let’s go further and assume that the smartwatch killer app is not putting the Apple brand on wrists. Sure, that may be enough for some people.

I’m thinking of the friends who spent a great deal of money remodeling their kitchen. Six months later I visited, and preheated the oven of their six-burner Viking stove to make breakfast scones. The awful smell? A plastic bag full of Viking documentation melting in the oven. Turned out the oven had not been used once since the stove was installed.

But just to be perverse, let’s assume that once the Apple Watch is on a wrist, it should be capable of doing something. Something interesting.

If there’s no single, killer app, what would a small family of violent and felonious apps include?

In his presentation on testing smartwatch applications, Aaron Rudger made the development of conventions governing smartwatch applications sound too obscure and vague for my taste. I commented on this in the first published version of my summary of Rudger’s presentation. I added more comments later on, citing emerging frameworks of relevant thinking by Raluca Budiu and Bruce Tognazzini.

Still, the scope of this discussion is limited to emerging standards, or constraints: the smartwatch application developer’s style guide. This discussion shapes the vessel that will contain the best smartwatch applications.

FunBITS: the Gaming Potential of the Apple Watch,” by Josh Centers, goes further. Centers doesn’t claim a Grand Unified Theory of the Apple Watch. He articulates the gist of what it’s good at—what it is—and then breaks trail in a particular direction. He does not assert that this particular direction excludes others; it’s just the way he rolls.

This direction is gaming. Centers cites a variety of gaming peripherals littering the side of the road, and several Apple Watch capabilities and extensions Apple should consider, supporting the Apple Watch’s utility as a gaming peripheral.

The future is so bright, and yet Centers has not put on this sunglasses. What’s the holdup?

If only…if only we could connect it to something besides an iPhone! If only—dare I say it?—if only Apple would open up its WatchKit and let developers do their worst with the system. (Apple promises access to sensors soon.)

If you’re looking for a partial theory of where Apple Watch apps are headed, Centers has something for you.

Better, if you’re looking for an example of a way to think about where Apple Watch apps are headed, Centers has something for you. Read this way, his article is less vulnerable to argument.

“Mark Twain” on Wearables

While writing the post about Aaron Rudger’s wearables presentation, I summarized it for a friend, in an instant messaging encounter. That was enough to provoke my friend into a riff on the dark side. I’ve adapted it here.

Since my friend works in telecommunications, and some of his opinions could be interpreted as expressing less than total enthusiasm for any business venture his employer might conceivably undertake, we’ll call him “Mark Twain.”

[4/20/2015 10:25:53 AM] Mark Twain: I guess that’s why I have come to hate the “mediated experience” Neal Stephenson writes about in In the Beginning was the Command Line.

Didn't Know He Was a Lefty

[4/20/2015 10:27:45 AM] Mark Twain: Most of that experience is advertising of one form or another. Or surrounded by it. Looking for a word here…suspended in it?

[4/20/2015 10:29:14 AM] Mark Twain: Like a decent movie is suspended in a bath of advertising, like the nutrient bath (or whatever it is) Neo wakes up to find himself immersed in, in the Matrix….

[4/20/2015 10:30:23 AM] Mark Twain: OK, back to making the world more capable of delivering it to all of us on more devices in real time….

[4/20/2015 10:32:16 AM] Mark Twain: But we could start dreaming up a good horror movie (too bad I don’t like those either) about what happens to the nascent amoral machine intelligence of the cloud once we’re all covered in “wearables” and all our appliances talk to each other on the web….

[4/20/2015 10:32:58 AM] Mark Twain: Think of the havoc that might be wrought by connected chainsaws and lawnmowers. I already know guys in Denmark working on the lawnmowers….

I was picturing Dalí-esque gelled (jelloed?) smartwatches devouring debutante wrists like pythons….

[5/9/2015 10:01:18 AM] Mark Twain: Now that would be interesting to test.

I agree! But I wouldn’t undertake such a project without competent legal advice.

Aaron Rudger’s “Three Ways to Captivate Customers on Wearables”

This is how it happened, more or less: My colleague Gilberto Castañeda asked what I thought of the SQE/Techwell STAREAST Virtual Conference.

“Oops! I missed it! What was good?”

While I parsed his response to this question, I groped for an algorithm to choose which archived session or sessions to view myself. Since Gilberto hadn’t had much time for the conference, this suddenly got easy.

“Of the sessions you didn’t see, which interested you most?”

I thought I could feed the network by viewing that presentation, and providing a summary; hence, this post. Turns out Gilberto was most curious about Aaron Rudger’s presentation, “Three Ways to Captivate Customers on Wearables.” The synopsis:

Competing for growth is a game of seconds. Superior customer experience is the #1 differentiator for digital success today. Wearable devices and the apps that power them promise to change consumer life and employee productivity. Developers and Quality teams must meet the demanding needs of users whose expectations for a flawless experience are changing.

Aaron Rudger will discuss the three keys to success for delighting customers on smartwatches, smartphones, tablets or digital form-factors yet to be imagined. Aaron will share testing best practices to prepare your apps for a smooth and reliable experience now and in the future.

Buzzword alert! But what else would you expect from a presentation on wearables? Anticipate people who are racing to establish themselves at the forefront of an emerging technology composed of both agile and massive corporations racing to establish themselves…. A conference speaker on this topic will be surfing on someone else’s bow wave.

Rudger set the scene with rhetorical questions: How do you get high quality results from testing wearables? How do you ensure a high quality user experience?

Rudger equated three models of Apple watches with “Three Horsemen of the Testing Apocalypse.” Smart watches are not a new idea, but change the testing game. These will create a new paradigm for engaging with customers, Rudger said. (Really? There it is: the market for testing software on smartwatches boils down to those who want to use the watches to sell stuff. A friend shared his dystopian reaction while I wrote this.) There will be great pressure to deliver these new experiences.

But Rudger really isn’t here to talk about the scope of wearables. He’s not interested in sensor networks woven in fabric, for example. In fact, he’s drilling right down to the Apple watch. Why?

“It’s all about the money.”

It's All About the Money

Oh, right: that! Well, then! Let’s get to it.

720,000 Android watches (or “wear devices”) were sold in all of 2014. In contrast, an estimated 1.2 million Apple watches sold during the first weekend of their availability, with 2015 sales forecast at 20 million. Rudger forecasts linear growth, quickly leading to a multi-billion dollar market with concomitant pressures. He also cited a prediction that 2.5 billion smartphones will be active by end of 2016.

Building and running apps for the Apple Watch dependent on Apple’s WatchKit. Even if you don’t develop functionality specifically for the Watch, developers will take advantage of its functionality, and of WatchKit. WatchKit affects mobile developers “whether or not they’re in the…game.”

Rudger asserted that the Apple Watch has driving the doubling of iOS release velocity.

By the way, don’t expect Google to sit still and watch while this happens. Android will continue quick evolution.

Power management is critical to apps for wearables; functionality and performance blur in this domain. Quality is tightly coupled with performance.

Rudger said that conventions in this domain are not well-defined. Really? Is this an opportunity for someone with a big mouth? Can’t one work from first principles and by analogy to establish a good first draft? What does usability god Jakob Nielsen have to say? Or Don Norman? Bruce Tognazzini? Has the smartwatch caught people like these flat-footed?

With a perfect sense of timing, while I was writing this post, Nielsen Norman Group Senior Researcher Raluca Budiu weighed in with “The Apple Watch: User-Experience Appraisal.” Her article cites an earlier look at the Samsung Galaxy Gear. Budiu describes Apple Watch GUI successes and failures with reference to broader principles, easily translated to design guidelines. I think we can say that, no, the usability crowd has not been caught flat-footed. But they can’t tell us what the smartwatch killer app is, either. Budiu’s conclusion is to offer some guidelines for those with the nerve to believe they can actually create value for smartwatch users. She can’t tell them where this value lies; only what its delivery vehicle should look and feel like.

Not long after, I came across Nielsen Norman Group principal and usability god Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini’s current draft “First Principles of Interaction Design.” This document also addresses smartwatches.

There may be a cultural or psychological factor at work in not acknowledging these or similar resources, e.g.: “We’re a startup. We don’t have time for that.”

And that brings us back to Rudger’s presentation: How hard will it be to develop good smartwatch apps? What must designers and developers consider? “…The application and experience is going to be contextually based; it’s going to require an extreme amount of curation….”

Does that help you? Me, neither.

In fact, the thrust of this section of the presentation is to reiterate what people have probably been telling each other since at least the invention of written language: Everything is faster and more complex than it’s ever been before. Only the fleetest of foot, Mercury-winged, have a prayer of even standing still (in Jeremy Scott’s styling footwear, no doubt).

Or is it completely true, and I’m just bored with the sound of being swept into the crowded dustbin of history?

But wait: Here’s the plug, and the reason Keynote LLC was happy to have Rudger, its Director of Product Marketing, spend time on this presentation: All of this means we should test in the cloud.

Cloud? What cloud? What does this mean? That we should use email and FTP to work together? Or that we have emulators available online? Oh, good: Here comes a well-timed demo.

Yes, they’re emulators. Not just emulators: emulators developed by Keystone! Like the ones I collected a dozen or two of when developing wireless applications 15 years ago, except that these run on someone else’s hardware, somewhere out there. They’re controllable through a web client.

At least that’s what the naive viewer might believe. But wait! He would be wrong! These are not emulators; Rudger’s showing us an interface to real hardware! (A free trial is available at Having multiple devices available at the same time enables easy exploratory testing. One device can send a message to another.

Rudger suggests that a great virtue of this approach is that it does not burden developers with the need to learn new languages. However, it’s amenable to both manual and automated testing (presumably through approaches like Selenium). The approach immediately supports new operating systems.

After about 25 minutes of introduction and presentation, we segue to audience questions and Rudger’s responses. Participants can’t help but feel rewarded for their efforts: Rudger thinks every question posed is “really great.” One that stood out:

Q [paraphrased]: Are wearables a fad?

A: No, because Apple’s involved.

Is that the deepest Rudger can go, when he could assemble a position using components like Moore’s Law?

Q: How many users are on a particular hardware device?

A: Capacity is adequate, and continuously monitored. Keynote adds devices to accommodate contention. There’s a careful process at work here. Of course there is. With any luck, Keynote won’t be as investment-averse as some of its clients are. Don’t make that process too careful!

Your Cloud Testing Environment Can Host Me and All My Friends, Right?

If you want to see for yourself, you can find Rudger’s presentation online until 8/7/2015. (You’ll have to register.)