A brief history of time (and what it means for smartwatches)

Olly Robinson
LDN - 24 Mar 2015
Olly Robinson

As Ben Thompson neatly summarised in his article on the Apple Watch opportunity, when thinking about new categories the trick is not to consider the world as it is, but as it might be. Unfortunately, this is often harder than we imagine.

One model for thinking through innovation in the context of ongoing change is to assess, at a macro level, what is scarce and what is abundant. Changes in this dynamic have the power to transform where value is captured, making or breaking new products and services along the way.

Take information. Relatively recently (at least in epochal terms) information was scarce, and capturing value from it was straightforward. Libraries were a sign of stature, and encyclopaedias came with a price tag reflective of it.

Fast forward to the present, and information has become abundant. The internet is awash with it. More than we know what to do with, and freely accessible to all. The result: not a good time to be peddling encyclopaedias.

It’s worth considering the Apple Watch in a similar regard, but in terms of time.

Where information is dynamic, time is a fixed resource. There are only so many minutes in an hour, only so many hours in a day. Yet our perception of time is more malleable. Sometimes it waits for no man, at others it flies or stands still.

The immediate predecessor to the Apple Watch transformed our perception of time, and transformed how value is captured in a whole heap of industries as a result.

My memory of a pre-smartphone world is primarily one of waiting. Waiting at stations and waiting at airports. Waiting for people to arrive (and occasionally waiting for them to leave). Depressingly, I find it much easier to recollect the waiting than some of the things I was waiting for.

The smartphone enabled these pockets of wasted time to become valuable, productive opportunities. A few moments alone with a smartphone can be an extension of your working day, or a chance to scan the headlines, or to catch up with people, or to try (again) to beat that high score, or a myriad of other things depending on how much time you have to spare.

Which is all fantastic, and has disrupted where and how value is created across multiple industries, but does it make time feel any more abundant?

As it turns out, the problem with a device that’s so good at filling pockets of unused time is that (without our conscious intervention) it swiftly encroaches on less idle moments as well. We’ve become relentlessly connected, via a torrent of notifications and perpetually refreshing feeds and streams. The result is that while we’ve managed to fit more things into time, time itself feels scarcer than ever before.

If we still perceive time to be a scarce resource, then helping us to better manage it remains a valuable opportunity. Enter Apple Watch.

By inserting an intelligent layer between our smartphones and ourselves, smartwatches have the potential to filter (and crucially, to help manage) when and why we interact with them. This control over how technology permeates our day could help us to use it more efficiently, drastically altering our perception of time for the better. Don’t underestimate the cumulative impact of a million tiny interactions.

Ultimately, the idea of scarcity and abundance isn’t a complicated model for thinking about new products and services, and nor is it a cast-iron way to predict success. What it can give us, is a language for thinking through how markets are changing and where new opportunities for value capture are likely to arise. In the case of the Apple Watch, it can also tell us that there’s the potential for a very valuable product indeed.