Please Do Not Save Me From My Phone

In two days, Apple’s going to have a big event where, presumably, they’ll reintroduce the Apple Watch, and it’s all anyone in the tech pundit space will talk about. This frustrates me, as a major consumer of said tech punditry. For one, I’m not sold on the whole idea of smartwatches. Also, I couldn’t use an Apple Watch even if I wanted to, as I own an Android phone and Apple Watch only works with a late model iPhone. Also, way, way too much of the “coverage” and “analysis” has been premature pronouncements of the products’ genius.
But there’s another reason it’s all kind of under my skin. The Apple Watch is being declared (again, prematurely) to be the device that will connect you back to the real world, because it will make you use your phone less. (This is in large part due in large part to a recent TechCrunch piece that lays out this case, which itself generated many takes and think-pieces.)

Alan Jacobs summed this up nicely on Twitter:

So the great thing about this new Apple product is that it helps me spend less time with my existing Apple product?

There’s my problem, I think, with smartwatches. If you know anything about me, you know that I really like my phone. I like the way it gives me an escape from the real world, much of which is rather awful, you may have noticed. I like the way it gives me an alternative for my attention, that it can save me from the people in proximity that I don’t wish to engage, while giving me an avenue to the people online that I do wish to engage, and on terms that I am comfortable with. I like to read on them, I like to screw around on them, I like to just stare at them for no reason.

By no means am I looking for a way to use my phone less. If anything, I’d like a device that removes more of the interactions and obligations that keep me from things I do enjoy like my family, my creative pursuits, and, oh, what was that other thing, oh yeah, my phone.

Look how peaceful and content she is with her phone. She doesn't need a goddamn smartwatch.

There was a back and forth over Twitter yesterday between iMore’s Rene Richie and ZDNet’s Ed Bott, both really smart tech journalists, in which Bott made more or less the same point Jacobs did, wondering why we’re so anxious to get away from our phones all of a sudden. Richie pointed out that with each big new gadget advancement, we wind up using the previous devices less. PCs meant less time on room-size mainframes, phones meant less time on PCs, and logic follows that watches will mean less time on phones.

But I don’t think so. Here’s why. I’ve never used a mainframe, so I won’t get into that part of the analogy, but the great thing about the advent of the smartphone wasn’t that it got us away from the PC, it’s that it allowed us to take the power of capabilities of the PC with us wherever we went, and even did many of the things we wanted to do better than the PC. For the remainder of tasks that a PC did do better, we were happier to do them on a PC (word processing, video editing, etc.). But thanks to the smartphone, an enormous amount of what we loved about our PCs was now absurdly portable.

The smartwatch is something else entirely. The smartphone could fulfill, what, 85% of the functions of a PC, but we can’t seriously say that about a watch. It will be able to send and receive messages, sort of, deliver notifications both visually and physically through haptic feedback, it can serve as a health monitor, and, well, anything else? As far as I can tell, two days from the big Apple Watch re-event, no. This is, what, 20% of what a smartphone can do?

The point is that a great deal of the joy and productivity of a PC was taken up by the smartphone, but relatively little of what we like about our phones will be aped by the watch. Some things, yes. And some things it will do a little better, and some things it will do that the phone can’t. But even if smartwatches (which, remember, require a phone to be on your person to even function) become independent of phones, I don’t see how they ever pick up enough of the phone’s slack. The analogy doesn’t hold.

And it’s not just me. People love their phones, and they love staring into them. They may also love fiddling with their smartwatches, but it won’t be the same. It can’t be. There’s far too little to look at, to be engrossed in. You won’t be able to escape with a smartwatch the way you can with a smartphone.

For lots of people, that’ll be great! I don’t for a minute think the Apple Watch will bomb. I’m sure it will sell in the gazillions. But it’s not “the next step.” It’s one screen onto which bits of our digital lives will be projected and manipulated, in a limited way, perhaps similarly to what we can get on our “smart” TVs and on some of the newer car displays. And that’s fine.

Years ago, when Microsoft was beginning to market Windows Phone in a serious way, they used the tagline “The phone to save us from our phones.” How well is Windows Phone doing these days?

People don’t want to be saved from their phones, not by Microsoft in 2010, and not by a watch, five years later, when those phones mean even more to us than they did then. People might also want a watch, and that’s fine. If I ever left the house for something other than picking up my kids or the grocery store, I might already own a Moto 360. But this whole line of thinking where somehow people are dying for a way to get away from their phones is misguided. Some people I’m sure will welcome it, being able to deal with many tasks via a screen on their wrists, but I think it’s wrong to overestimate how much affection people have for the screen in their hands.

Image by Shutterstock.

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