Digital Touch: The Hidden Gem inside Apple Watch

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I think Apple brought the “cool” back. Here is why I think the Apple Watch has the potential to be the company’s biggest success yet.

Social communication is everything. It’s the essence of mankind. No other “man-made” system is more complex than that of the human language. Having studied computational linguistics and phonetics at Bonn University, I got a glimpse of the intricacies that lie in our combination of sounds, gestures, mimics that make up this system. The sound system alone is more than just abc, the magic lies in what linguists call the suprasegmentals, such as melody, intonation, tone, stress, pitch, even volume.

When we added to spoken communication a system of written language some hundreds of years BC, we did just enough to carry the most basic suprasegmental traits over with punctuation and diacritics. Since written language was not primarily meant to represent everyday dialog but rather thoughts, facts and argumentation, the set of expressions of suprasegmentals available was just enough to avoid too many misunderstandings that a richer system of cues would help avoid almost completely.

When quicker forms of communication than the basic letter developed with the advent of the Internet, such as email a few decades ago, we started realizing the need for representing nuances such as a wink or sadness that we could easily convey with tone or color of sound in spoken communication. We invented the smileys, emoticons. They let us represent irony or other basic sentiment, which we could only do through more words before.

Soon after, communication got even faster with the introduction of instant messaging or “chat”. Suddenly, we found ourselves representing gestures or facial expressions with acronyms such as LOL, or, quite recently, SMH (shaking my head). We also went from using two asterisks surrounding a gestural expression (*sigh*) to the infamous “hashtag” – thanks to a few folks that came up with the idea of a “micro blog” in 2006 (technically speaking it wasn’t the founders of Twitter that came up with the hashtag, but the users). I am tempted to #SMH at that, but as a linguist by education I am just seeing (written) language evolve again, which is something that it has always done. There is also no need to despair over alleged degradation of our intricate system of language – if anything, the system is only growing in complexity, never shrinking.

Very recently, a new form of communication was again “invented” with the creation of the “Yo” app. Or was it? The app can do one thing, and one thing only: send someone a “yo”. It attracted venture capital of $1.5m. Now you might be throwing another #SMH at that at first sight, but think about it. When is the last time you sent a simple nod of your head someone’s way? Probably today. Since context is key in understanding human language, i.e. knowing what a conversation is about and knowing what has already been said (linguists call the study of context pragmatics), a nod can be all that’s needed in a certain context that both communication parties share. Yo has seen over a million downloads after only a few days. People love these simple forms of communication! Sometimes it can’t be simple enough.

In parts of India, Africa, and other areas of the so-called third world, people have agreed on ringing patterns to communicate, the so-called “flashing” or “beeping”. Rather than calling a phone with the intention to talk, they let the other party’s phone ring, having agreed on patterns beforehand. Ringing once might mean yes, twice might mean no, thrice “I’m downstairs, come out” etc. (I think I’ve used the latter meaning myself in the past…) As long as the context is known, that might be all you need to convey sometimes. And guess what, it’s free! Ringing does not incur a charge. Something the carriers in those markets do not love at all.

Now let’s get to why I’m telling you all this. I am because I watched Apple present their new communication paradigm with the recent introduction of Apple Watch and realized that they have a gem there that could explode big time and be the reason for the Watch’s success. Apple has come up with a number of new ways to communicate, which they call Digital Touch. Let’s start with the “coolest” one.

The Heartbeat
Since the Watch can measure your heartbeat thanks to its built-in sensors, you can literally send your current heartbeat onto somebody else’s wrist. The Watch cannot only vibrate one way, it has an elaborate vibration system that can generate tangible sensations of different durations, at different areas, of different intensities. What on Earth would I use that for I hear you ask. Maybe to share my heartbeat with my girlfriend. Maybe to share it with a friend after a run (“hey, here’s my pulse, not bad after 5 miles right?”), or while watching a horror movie (“oh man this flick is intense, check out my heartbeat”) or riding a roller-coaster. Or to communicate boredom to a presenter, or relaxedness to my mom before an exam. Or… you’re next with ideas.

The Sketch
The Watch lets me draw on screen and then re-draws that pattern following my exact movements on the recipient’s screen. An effect that made the game Blek successful and addictive recently. What I draw gets re-drawn and then disappears – something that made Snapchat famous and worth $10 billion. Yes, billion. I can draw a quick check mark to send a “yes” or a “got it” to a friend. Or a house to tell dad I’m home. Or a question mark to tell my colleague I have no idea what our boss just meant with that remark on the phone call we’re both on. Or a heart to tell my girlfriend that I’m thinking of her…

The Tap
I can touch the screen at different places. The touches will be shown as “drops” appearing and vanishing on the recipient’s wrist at the same rhythm that I generated them. I can imagine teenagers coming up with an elaborate “language” of touch patterns that only they can decipher. We will witness the birth of micro-languages that small groups agree on and use for communication. Something that I loved doing with friends when I was a kid. This is just a modern day version of the same.

We all loved doing this as kids, and guess what: the walkie-talkie is seeing a renaissance with apps such as Whatsapp that have been offering it for a while. You tap to record a snippet of voice or your surroundings, then let go to send. As simple as that. Apple added this feature rather late in their recent iOS 8 release, but well, they added it. And it completes the Digital Touch framework.


Honestly, as a linguist, I can’t wait for the release of Apple Watch to see all this come to life. As a consumer in love with Apple’s perfection in everything they do (tolerating the occasional disappointments they cause) I want to get my hand on one as soon as I can, hoping that enough others will join this exciting world of communication, too. And Apple will probably take some of these features over to iOS for phones and tablets: no reason why I couldn’t tap or draw on my iPhone and send these volatile communication primitives to a receiving phone.

Apple clearly brought the “cool” back with the Watch announcement and all the things they invented around this “most personal device yet”, such as the pressure-sensitive screen, the “digital crown”, and the numerous sensors onboard. And concocted yet another device I didn’t know I needed. Someone who can do that on a repeated basis deserves nothing but the utmost respect. Don’t you think?

Apple, Bring the WOW Factor Back!

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Apple is immensely successful. As you might know, I have the deepest respect for a company that TRULY revolutionized 2 markets (the music industry through iPod, and the telephony and mobile communications industry through iPhone), and created an entirely new one with the iPad. (They didn’t invent any of these 3 product categories, though. They just made them perfect.) They are so great because they understand the importance of usability. They further understand that only by owning both the hardware and the software stack can they create products that exceed anybody else’s when it comes to usability. While that necessarily results in what the industry calls “vendor lock-in”, I do believe that it is a necessary evil you can’t get around if you want products that not only work but also leave no room for frustration.

But does Apple really own both the hardware and the software stack? They own the hardware and the operating system, and contribute a little bit of software themselves through some pre-installed apps (things like calendar, mail, basic messaging, a very week Reminder app, a weather app that works but doesn’t do much beyond that, etc.) and functionality such as Siri. The rest they leave to the developer community, while holding a tight regiment when it comes to releasing their apps in the App Store. But why?

People say Apple hasn’t innovated for three years now. I’m inclined to still call that a rather short period of time, given how immensely successful they still are with sales. But yes, I am becoming increasingly impatient as well. The latest quarterly results were breathtaking, but since people expected even more (what the hell were they thinking?), the Apple stock dropped and Apple lost their leading position as the most valuable company in the world. I don’t want to discuss the ludicrous market reaction to Apple’s latest fantastic quarterly results here, but instead focus on how Apple could innovate next within the existing product portfolio (on the same topic, also read this fantastic post by Huffington Post’s CTO: Apple, RIM, Google, Microsoft: Where Is the Big Bang?).

Google innovates by throwing tons of service ideas out there and seeing which ones survive – or actually work great. They risk lots of failures while doing that (Wave, now Apache Wave, and Buzz have probably been among the more prominent ones). One of the most promising recent contributions is Google Now, a personal assistant that is proactive, rather than simply reactive. Siri, the equivalent in the Appleverse, is nothing like Google Now. Furthermore, Siri has severe shortcomings to Google Voice, the voice search feature. It is Google’s immense knowledge database and their Knowledge Graph feature that allows them more and more to actually answer questions vs just showing search results.

I believe that in order to truly innovate again, Apple needs to dramatically increase their efforts around their software ecosystem. Instead of waiting for startups to come up with cool ideas for apps that make our lives easier, Apple should lead here: take things into their own hands, as they have done with the decision to control both hardware and the OS. I, personally, use apps like GroupMe for communication, Instapaper and Flipboard for reading, GoodReader for PDFs, Clear for notes, the Google app for QR code scanning (why the heck does Apple’s camera app not do that?), etc. Instead of leaving the field (of actually making the iPhone useful) to the developer community ALONE, Apple could create huge innovation by taking each of these fantastic app ideas and doing what Apple is best at: adding their usability magic to make all of them truly beautiful, fast, and convenient. Or even better: come up with their own imaginative ideas for new apps. Software makes the world go round!

Shame on you Apple for releasing crap like Camera, Reminders, Notes, or Weather, and leaving these pretty much untouched for generations of your iOS! Bring the WOW factor back to your next releases and surprise us again! It’s about time.

Spoiled by Apple

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I am spoiled by Apple. Steve Jobs, with his tight regiment and focus on product usability, has made Apple one of the highest valued companies in the world (recently overtaken by Exxon again, after a totally inexplicable drop of stock quote). My employer equipped me with my first two Apple products about four years ago: a MacBook Pro, and an iPhone. While it took me some time to adjust, having been a Windows user all my life, I have quickly adapted and do not want to go back. The iPhone, a revolution in the smartphone market 6 years ago, has not ceased to set the standard for usability and product design until today.

I am spoiled by Apple, as it made me expect no less now than functioning, fast, intuitive electronics from ANY vendor now. When I bought Samsung’s Smart TV, I was disappointed by its voice control feature. Even though I do use it, it could be so much more than what it currently is. And I use almost none of the other features (the “apps”), as they work much better and faster on my iPad, which I can mirror to the TV screen via my Apple TV.

When I bought the Nexus 7 from Asus, I had somewhat high expectations based on the reviews. Again, I was disappointed. Compared to the iPad it is slow, i.e. the UI not as responsive, relatively unstable, the screen is not as accurate, and quite a few of the common apps I use seem less well thought through in terms of their implementation. It does have some nice GUI features, such as the cross-app back button, the predictive keyboard, or the notifications. But overall, it has nothing that would make me go “wow”, or miss something on the iPad, with its rich multi-touch gestures and attention to detail overall. I do like its form factor, but I can get that with the iPad mini, too, which I’ll probably own once it has the resolution called “Retina” that the iPad 3 introduced.

Apple has set the standards, and they continue to impress me with that. However, they do make mistakes (see my post here), and they do have competition. But if they stick to what made them great, which is taking an existing product and making it usable, they will continue to lead.

How much does it take to make the mobile Apple user go somewhere else?

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My company is Apple’s largest business customer in central Florida. Each new hire receives a brand new iPhone and a MacBook Pro. That’s quite impressive. Having been a Windows user all my life, it took me a while to fall in love with the idea of a new OS, but it didn’t take too long in the end. The Apple OS and the entire ecosystem is truly attractive and impressive for the frequent user. Believe it or not, I’m not much of a hacker when it comes to using my computer. I want it to work and focus on what I create or process with it; I don’t like to focus on it itself too much. So the Apple system appeals to me.

I’ve become a fan of its simplicity, of its love for the detail, and of its quality. I have tolerated Apple’s closed nature so far, but the recent moves frustrated me. Introducing their own maps is fine. Being Apple, I expected a high quality product that by itself would convince me to move away from Google. That’s how a free market works. But they didn’t give me that choice. They deprived me of the most used app on my iPhone, Google Maps. And they replaced it with a product that is sub-par. What’s more, they deprived me of the second-most used app on my iPhone (and iPad), YouTube. And they replaced it with… nothing. YouTube’s strength is its content. Like Facebook’s strength is its user base. By definition, Apple CANNOT come up with a similar product. It would’ve taken years to grow similar content. So, without asking me or any other of their users, they have taken the app away. Here I am, searching the AppStore for something that comes close…

What the heck Apple? Don’t do that to your users! You created a whole new market with your two latest products, and that’s a phenomenal achievement. But the competition is getting stronger and stronger. Don’t risk your reputation (of creating quality products) with moves like this. To be honest, you’ve always had a bad reputation for your closedness, so removing YouTube might almost be considered “in character”… Bad enough!