Sunday, 14 January 2018

Watch The Next Big thing

 Byte Magazine 1981 

Byte magazine had a tradition of including a few gag products in its “What’s New” section and for April 1981 Robert Tinney painted an image for the front cover of what a future computer might look like. 

"Many a true word is spoken in jest"

Robert Tinney's 1981 watch computer was a gag but wonderfully illustrates how the past, present and future are inter-twinned. The future has to be built on something and its built on the past and the present ... its a combination and an extrapolation of trends.

Exponential development is a common factor in digital electronics so that every 18 months to 2 years we often get a doubling of electronic capability or a shrinking in size. Robert Tinney's future computer shrunk a PC of the time to watch size but in terms of capability (processing, memory, storage, connectivity etc) it didn't go nearly far enough. A typical PC in 1981 might have 32K of memory 20Mb of storage whereas a typical PC today might have 4Gb of memory and 350Gb of storage - an increase of over 130,000 in memory and nearly 18,000 in storage over 40 years ... a typical PC today would be a super computer in1981. But things have moved on a lot ... development of the PC all but stopped years ago and it's the smartphone on which we build our ideas of the future and it's the smartphone we are trying to shrink to the size of a watch. The smartphone could be considered a stepping stone to the smartwatch and can be regarded as the personal computer (PC) of today but its so much more. Shrinking all that a smartphone does today into a watch is a big challenge ... probably similar to the challenge of shrinking a PC to a watch in 1981 and although its a leap of faith ... consider what exponential development might achieve over the next 10 or 20 years let alone 30 or 40.

After 20 years all these things fitted into a mobile phone
when might they all it into a watch?
Of course the smartwatch is already here ... Apple was late to the market but released its smartwatch in April of 2015 with 8Gb memory ... it was already more powerful than the ICL mainframe I learned to program with in the 1970s and similar in specification to the original iPhone less than 10 years earlier. Currently Smartwatches are generally used as part of a smartphone ecosystem ... a easily accessible accessory, remote control and interface for email, phone, calendar, messages, maps, music, photos, and reminders. 

So ... why is the smartwatch the next big thing

Carving out a completely knew thing is so much harder than changing something that already exists - the most successful technologies build on what we know and slip in as slow boiling frogs under the radar. The automobile is a horseless carriage, a smartphone is a mobile phone. We are all familiar with watches and most of us wear one so adding computer features to them is more of a value addition than a disruptive shift .... for the consumer at least. The little watch on our wrist is a place holder ready for the next big thing. 

The best technologies are easy and make life easier ... we don't notice the technology - it just "disappears". We have to remember to carry our Smartphones and they can be awkward but with a watch ... once you have strapped it on your wrist it's there with you for the rest if the day and just a glance away ... its easy and convenient.

The Sgnl wristband ... use your finger to listen

Because we can
If exponential developments in digital electronics continue as they have over the last 40 years we will eventually see all of todays smartphone capabilities shrunk into the size of watch and the future smartwatch could well be orders of magnitude more powerful than a smartphone today. Even if digital technology doesn't develop as fast as it has in the past the combination of new technologies make the smartwatch as the next big thing more feasible than ever before. Battery size is the biggest problem for small devices but having a very small screen and reducing the need to use a screen interface by using voice instead could improve both convenience and battery life. The screen as an interface is still a problem with smartphones ... typing and reading such small screens is not that convenient - voice input and output makes a lot more sense for mobile devices for many uses. Shrinking electronics and embedding them in things is happening fast and many of these things are connected and more naturally have voice rather than screen interfaces - the smartwatch is just another part of this trend ... just another part of "the internet of things". 

"We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction.
Bill Gates

Because the watch is familiar and convenient we may not even notice it as the next big thing ... it's already among us and while it has its problems today don't underestimate its potential over the longer term.

And after the watch .. .what comes next for the ever shrinking computer.

"Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference. If I take 30 steps linearly, I get to 30. If I take 30 steps exponentially, I get to a billion." 
~ Ray Kurzweil

"Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe." 
~ Albert Einstein

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