Precision and Barriers, or Why I’m Not Buying the First Apple Watch

The first iPhone, released eight years ago, was described by Steve Jobs as “three revolutionary products”.

The first: a widescreen iPod with touch controls. (This was met by substantial applause.)

The second: a revolutionary mobile phone. (This was met by massive applause.)

The third: a breakthrough internet communications device. (This was met by confused applause.)

As we all know, the third one was the important one. Okay, yes, we all use the phone feature, from time to time, on our iPhones. And sure, we also listen to music.

But what we didn’t know in 2007 was that the “revolutionary” products Jobs introduced, a widescreen iPod and Apple-ified phone, would be massively eclipsed by the importance of mobile, network-enabled computing that fits in our pockets. We also didn’t have any premonition of the power of the App Store.

Perhaps that’s because we didn’t have any model to base those predictions on. We had a way of judging the iPhone: previous phones. We had a way of judging the iPod. But we didn’t have a cultural roadmap to understanding the power, delight, and downright market domination of mobile computing.

In March, Apple will release the first Apple Watch. It will have watch faces. It will have apps. But those are the things for which we’ve already built roadmaps.

I believe that the power of the Apple Watch isn’t simply in having an extension of your screen on your wrist, but rather an entirely new class of computing: sensing.

A Simple Example

How do you “track” your calories?

25 years ago, tracking calories might have been very difficult. The reason? Nutrition labels weren’t required until 1990. However, once we had those nutrition labels, it was simple: tracking calories could be done in your favorite Day-Timer®.

First, you look up the calorie count of your food on the label. Then, you determine how much of that food you ate. Just write the numbers down, and calculate the calories. If you had the right Day-Timer, you might even have a calculator already built into the sleeve. How much easier could it get?

Let’s take a look at how much things have changed in 25 years, shall we?

How do you track the number of calories you eat per day?

First, you look up the food. Then, you record how much of that food you ate, and the app will calculate the total.

Notice something strange?

Almost nothing has changed in this simple act.

Sure, the calorie counting apps have a large index of food and their associated calories. Sure, it will calculate weird quantities for you. But how much better is that than a Day-Timer? I’d argue that, at best, it is only marginally better. The only difference, basically, is that now you use a digitized Day-Timer. With a built-in calculator.

The thing we don’t have, currently, is true precision tracking. We don’t have a way of knowing how many steps we’ve taken, precisely, or how many calories we’ve eaten, precisely. We don’t know exactly how much sleep we’ve gotten, precisely, because even the best of the “tracking” apps fall short in their level of precision. They don’t have a true and undeniable reading on our behaviors — at best, they make educated guesses based on sensor data.

Why the watch matters

The watch matters because it has the chance to drastically improve the imprecision issues within quantified self movement. In the future, instead of manually tracking what I’ve eaten that day, I’ll be able to simply look at my chosen digital device and see what I’ve eaten. I’ll be able to see how that affects my body composition, and a close representation of the exact number of calories I’ve burned that day. Instead of seeing skewed graphs of how my sleep went the night before, I will be able to trust something that actually measures my REM cycles accurately.

This is the future of sensing technology for humans, and it starts with the wide adoption of Apple’s (and others’s) smartwatch.

Why I’m not buying it (yet)

The problem is, most see smart watches as a watch and a miniature iPhone screen, just as we saw the iPhone as primarily a phone and a souped-up iPod. It wasn’t until significantly later that there was money and energy poured into the true purpose the iPhone was created to fulfill. And the same is true for the Apple Watch, and other smart wearables. Until we fully latch on and take advantage of their unique opportunity to massively improve the precision of human sensing, smart wearables will be treated as accessories to the devices that have already found their place and stride. However, there will come a time when wearables will open up new doors, and we’ll look back on our digital Day-Timers and laugh at what we once did.

Originally published at

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