How Apple Gave Contextual Services a Big Boost

Apple announced its iWatch yesterday, and it’s likely to become an icon among the hip crowd, among which I’m unhesitatingly not counting myself.  But notwithstanding the forces that drive Apple addicts to buy everything under that famous logo, useful or not, iWatch does open some interesting questions and suggest some interesting trends.  So while I’m not rushing out to get one, I do propose to look at what the announcement could mean for the industry, but in particular for mobility and contextual services.  We may all be rushing to dance to Apple’s new tune, in a sense, Apple fans or not.

With the exception of biometrics, there’s not much that you can do with an iWatch that you couldn’t do with an iPhone in a pure-function sense, and even Apple isn’t likely to be relying on simplistic repackaging functionality as the basis for its growth in share price.  In my view, iWatch is intended to be a step along a trend line that has taken us from phones as instruments of calling to phones as a means of driving our lives along.

Most of what people do with smartphones require, no surprise, that you access the phone.  You dig it out of the pocket or purse and diddle with it to text, answer IMs or emails, update social networks.  That’s more convenient than sitting down at the computer, but it’s still not exactly instant gratification.  First and foremost, the iWatch is about improving the gratification dimension.  It’s a handy agent element for the iPhone, a more generalized extension than a Bluetooth headset but like a headset it lets you do something without handling the phone itself.  Somebody calls or texts, and instead of digging for the phone you look at your iWatch to see who and what.  You can generate simple responses, you can mute the alert, all without diddling with your phone.

Cynics among us might say that this is another gilding of the lily but I have to point out that cellphones gilded the black phone lily and smartphones did the same for cellphones.  The truth is that we’re trying to figure out how to best interact with a gadget whose role in our lives is expanding radically and rapidly.  The iWatch may not have all the answers at this point, but it’s asking an important question about how to best support interactions with a device that’s more than a phone and getting more functional every day.

The big question for iWatch, in my view, is where it might drive Siri.  Our same hypothetical cynics will look at the small face and limited messaging capabilities of the iWatch and suggest that it will further trivialize human interaction.  Yuppies will refuse to communicate with anything other than iWatch-suggested texts and eventually carry this simple-polysyllabic model to the rest of their lives, making conversation seem like it’s extracted from first-grade reading material. Well, maybe.  It seems more likely that what will happen is that iWatch will create enormous pressure for voice control and response, and then for what I’ve been calling “contextual services”.

It’s obvious that a super-Siri could immeasurably enhance the utility of iWatch, simply because there would be more things an owner could do without hauling out the phone.  Apple is already in a competition with Google and Microsoft over voice-operated personal assistants, but it doesn’t seem that Apple has really worked hard to get Siri to measure up to its potential (recent commercials touting Microsoft Cortana’s superiority could change that).  Perhaps now Apple will have a second reason to push Siri forward.

The “Cortana factor” could also join with iWatch in moving Apple toward contextual services in general.  Right now, Cortana offers a few contextual capabilities relating to location and calls that Siri lacks.  Rather than getting into a jab-for-jab match with Microsoft, iWatch might induce Apple to look at a general architecture for contextual services, something that could be truly revolutionary.

iWatch is a limited vehicle for interaction; it’s convenient but hardly rich.  Any sort of clues from any source would help a lot to get the number of things a user might mean or want down to a point where iWatch could navigate the field of options.  “Buzz me when I get close to my hotel” and “buzz me when I pass a bar with my favorite wine” aren’t that far apart in the sense of the iWatch interaction but there’s a lot more behind the second than the first, and more behind the first than asking for a reminder to buy flowers triggered by location being near a flower shop.  Both demand contextual understanding of the request.

Contextual services is a big opportunity, if you address it.  Apple is taking a big risk with iWatch, I think, but not in the sense that some on Wall Street think.  The problem is that iWatch makes it very clear that any wearable adjunct to a smartphone is crying out for contextual, voice-assistant, support simply because there’s no strong mission for such a wearable element other than to act as an agent for simple interactions.  It follows that the more things you can turn into simple interactions through application of context and speech recognition the more valuable the gadget is.  Will Google or Microsoft or even Amazon miss that point?  Any of them could field something here.

In fact, anyone could provide contextual services and a good framework.  Carriers, startups, anyone.  A standards group or industry group could be spawned to create a specification for wearable-tech-to-smartphone interactions, and the whole space would then open up.  That’s something any Apple competitor might consider if only to poison Apple’s well should iWatch succeed.

This impacts even vendors who have nothing to do with wearable tech, watches, or even high-level services.  What we’re seeing here is an example of how something outside the network creates a new set of opportunities that the network, in part at least, would have to fulfill.  Operators don’t get to plan iWatch launches, they have to react to the conditions the launch creates, and they have to plan to do that at price points appropriate to the consumer market.  So even though iWatch today is still a shadow of the revolution many say it is, there’s still time for it to become truly revolutionary, and drag all of networking along for the ride.