This has been a big week for smartwatches, especially here on Quartz. So far we’ve already published four pieces on the putative next big thing. Much of that was linked to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the industry’s annual jamboree for new products, during which smartwatch pioneers Pebble announced an app store. But if past experience is anything to go by, 2014 will not be the year of smartwatches and face computers. Instead, wearables such as watches will probably slink into the background after the CES-spurred hype dies down.
But they will resurface next year, and be better than anything we’ve seen so far.
We’ve seen it before: Touchscreen phones and smartphones existed before the iPhone but they simply weren’t very good. Microsoft released its first Surface tablet in 2007 (here’s a great video hyping it) and even showed it off at the 2008 edition of CES. It didn’t catch on. Between the first edition of a new type of device and the second is a period during which the early adopters try it out and critics call it a fad, while engineers work in the background to refine it and remove flaws.
“The first generation is never successful. It does a few things really well but it does a lot of things worse. So my guess is 2014 is going to be this intermediate cycle when the hype dies down while people really work on it,” Phil Libin, CEO of productivity app maker Evernote, told Quartz in a recent interview. The difference between phones and wearables, he says, is that the pace of development is now much quicker: “Instead of taking 10 years it’s going to take one year. So we’ll see the real mainstream products in 2015.”
Libin may seem like an unlikely authority on wearable computers. His company, which now claims some 80 million users, started life with a productivity app and though it has branched out to physical products (such as a co-branded scanner with Fujitsu), it remains at heart a software company. But software must be written for whatever devices are available, and Evernote, like most tech companies, is keenly focused on supplying the next wave of computing devices. Libin says he is already working with Google Glass, Samsung and Sony smartwatches and Samsung fridges. (Libin is also aware of the pitfalls of spreading himself too thin, recently responding to criticism about Evernote’s performance by making a public commitment to improve it on existing platforms.)
How to write software for wearables
Libin envisions the spread of wearable technologies changing the way humans interact with machines. “The sessions [with technology] get smaller and much more frequent,” he says. People used desktop computers for hours at a time, but often just once a day. Laptops can used in a variety of locations, so they are used more frequently and for shorter periods. Smartphones are almost always on hand, so people tend to use them multiple times a day but for even smaller bits of time. “But on wearables it’s going to go from 2 minutes to 2 seconds, but from 20 times a day to 200 times a day. So the [software] design challenge is how do you make experiences that are really short, where the sessions are glance-able?” he says.
Libin doesn’t have all the answers on design, but he’s sure about one thing: The fundamental unit of human-machine interaction in wearable devices will not be apps. Desktop and laptop computers use the browser for access to a variety of online services. On mobile phones, the form of the device meant that certain things—such as design, readability and the guiding users’ intuition, could be better achieved with apps than web pages. Similarly, wearables require a new way of thinking, something that allows it to serve you rather than you having to swipe a small screen dozens of times over to get to what you want.
What wearables are actually for
Wearable devices are made for services like virtual assistant Google Now, which tries to figure out what you want before know it yourself. Libin wants Evernote to provide that kind of service, for example by offering context from your existing notes when you need it but without your having to look it up. “You shouldn’t have to search. Searching is already a failure. If you have to search we haven’t done our jobs,” he says. That is in many ways the idea that other companies making software for wearables have in mind. For example, Taggar is an app that, on Google Glass, automatically displays information about objects as you look at them, so long as they have been “tagged” by another user.
As more people become accustomed to the idea that their data is used to provide tailored information and search results, the appeal of wearable devices will grow. The price will also come down. One of the most expensive parts of a smartphone or tablet is the glass, says Libin. For small devices like glasses or watches, the surface area of the glass is small enough to make a significant difference.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that wearable devices remain hopelessly uncool. That too will change, though not necessarily because the devices themselves will become that much sleeker. “People confuse what it means to look cool. It doesn’t have to do with the physical aesthetics. If you could be confident while using it, after a while it [will] look fine. If you’re not confident, no matter how good it looks physically, you’re going to look like a dork. So the technology has to get to a point where you’re just much more confident. It’s not there yet,” Libin says. Maybe next year.