Tech for the Sake of Tech

Image edited from an image downloaded via Google Image Search at http://www.foggiest.net/pmwiki/uploads/Fog/circuitboard2.jpg

Image edited from an image downloaded via Google Image Search at http://www.foggiest.net/pmwiki/uploads/Fog/circuitboard2.jpg

Context

As I write, we could be undergoing another technological change right under our feet, and it is most likely a shift from the smartphone to wearable technology; that's what the industry seems to be pushing. Apple’s hinted at some sort of great shift via their WWDC 2014 invite, claiming that “life will be different as a result”. And when Apple hints at big change, like they did with the iPhone in 2007, they’ll make sure that it’s going to gain traction.

In 2007, the closest thing to a smartphone before the iPhone was a phone with a QWERTY keyboard, and a screen that was seen as pretty large at the time. There was very little out there that looked like what we call a smartphone today. However, the thing with wearable tech is that there's a lot that's already out there, from wristbands to smartwatches to clip-on sensors. The consumer electronic space has never been so competitive this time around; now the Asian giants like Lenovo and especially Samsung have risen (if not influentially, then at least financially) and taken the tech industry to new heights. Not only does Apple realise that their dream of a smartphone-powered world came true in such a short amount of time, but so does the rest of the industry. Now everyone has their eyes fixated on what Apple’s going to do next, but the companies doing so have gotten us into some sort of convoluted mess. In order to understand the context of a potentially incoming shift, we should understand how the industry has evolved under the current shift.

First came the Apple speculation explosion, the spark of which lit perhaps around the time of Antennagate and came to fruition around the period of time after Steve Jobs’ death (which I like to think occurred due to the media’s separation anxiety from such an iconic head as Jobs was). Stories about their manufacturing practices, analysts’ cynical speculations about future products under Tim Cook’s leadership, and legal tensions with Google and Samsung started churning out nearly every week, it seemed. It left a bitter taste in many people’s mouths, and they started gravitating away from a company they once adored rather than question. It wasn’t easy for those who continued to be fans either: the mysticism behind Apple keynotes was soon spoiled by the flurry of rumors from tech sites, especially those from sources within Apple’s supply chains.

At the same time, tech company after tech company started jumping onto the smartphone bandwagon. Then came the Samsung Galaxy S3, the first major competitor to the iPhone that I could remember since its inception, at least on a mass market scale. The market quickly became saturated with phones every year thereafter at what seemed like an exponential rate, and the market welcomed many of these new phones with open arms, the Asian market especially. Alongside the market’s newfound (for the lack of a better word) distrust towards Apple, the idea of a smartphone then became subject to typical consumerism, becoming more and more of a disposable object with each subsequent iteration - factors of which that may have affected this could include a lack of sustainable, long-lasting design or, simply, poor marketing.

Whilst these companies continued to churn out new versions and models of smartphones, they’ve also tried to figure out what would come next. Like I’ve mentioned, they had a fixed eye on Apple and their progress; they had to know as much as they could, because a secrecy such as Apple’s (which they mentioned would not only continue, but they'd double down on) could only insinuate more curiosity, rather than avoid it (Sidenote: Not saying that being completely open to the public about their plans is a good thing for them to do, I honestly think that could only make things worse for them). Without Apple, or sources within the company, to give them any solid ideas on what they can expect next, where did they start to look to? Of course, the speculative tech sites, pushing out rumor after rumor after rumor.

The idea of Apple creating a smartwatch suddenly started to gain attention, which then evolved into the idea of a new category: wearable tech, instigated by products like Google Glass and more recently, the Samsung Gear line. Suddenly, attention is taken away from those who’ve been selling products in this part of the industry to begin with, such as Nike and Fitbit, as the influx of products from these increasingly reputable tech giants commenced and continues to this day...

…which brings us to the present. Just to sum it up:

  • Google’s recently released Android Wear, a smartwatch-friendly version of Android, alongside Motorola and LG.
  • Speaking of, Glass has been around for awhile, but hasn’t proven to cause the massive shift they wanted. Even so, enthusiasm towards wearable tech has been increased as a result.
  • Samsung and Pebble have released new versions of their watches, implying a considerable amount of effort and faith put into the smartwatch platform.
  • On an arguably unrelated note, the battle for VR supremacy (which is technically still wearable tech, at least in the gaming space) has begun as Facebook just bought Oculus and Sony unveiled their own VR headset.
  • Finally, like I’ve said, Apple’s could be hinting at another big change.

In summary, wearable tech has surpassed being a mere concept. It’s now pretence, and it’s the industry’s best guess towards what the future of technology holds. We’re just waiting on Apple’s signal.

The Problem

Despite the odd triangulation between consumer behavior, media cynicism and speculation, and the industry’s means of “innovating”, it’s amazing how the iPhone continues to grow and stand the test of time. There's a lot of doubt in my mind that smartphones, let alone the iPhone, will suddenly stop selling and disappear from world culture in favor of wearable tech.  The problem is that the industry wants to get ahead of itself. As I see it, there are two large forces behind this massive push forward: the companies in Silicon Valley thinking that they’ve a newfound power to change the world (there’s even a TV show coming out parodying SV culture), and follow the path Apple and (the old) Microsoft left behind, and the companies in booming Asian economies struggling to be there first and make #TheNextBigThing before everyone else so that the money would follow them.

They say that choice is always good for the consumer, but now the market is just filled with all these different things produced out of this giant explosion of tech enthusiasm. It’s just that with many of these, it’s hard to find a real need for. Too little thought put into too many products, it just doesn’t work. And from this stems a lot of the things I’ve been blogging about over the years. I think it results from consumers conditioned into wanting more and more, eventually wanting more of the wrong things (e.g. looking at specs rather than function) and the industry churning out whatever they want in spite of that. Sometimes what the consumer wants and what is manufactured for the mass market is spot on, but most of the time there’s just a lot of rage over wanting bigger and better tech.

It’s become tech for the sake of tech, from both consumers and tech companies (Sidenote: Can I coin the term “techompany”?). But yet again, Apple still manages to thrive in such hostile conditions.

The Solution

I think that the mentality Apple has when it comes to conceiving a product is that they’ve treated tech as a means of achieving necessities, rather than being the necessity itself. When new technological advancements are developed or tech services becoming blown-out-of-proportion successful, you hear very little about Apple acquiring the companies behind those innovations, unlike Facebook and Google, even with a larger amount of money in the bank. And when you hear major news related to their acquisitions, it’s usually years afterwards, when they’ve implemented technology into major products in a sensible, meaningful way. Look no further than the iPhone, adopting technologies from partnered company Nuance and purchased company AuthenTec for Siri and Touch ID respectively.

Technology might be their biggest asset, but it's simply an asset to them nonetheless. Rather than selling their products and services as technological innovations, they sell them as experiential innovations. They’re in the business of selling you better ways to interact with content from the internet, entertain yourself, talk to your friends, and be productive at work. That’s why their advertisements and video packages are regularly acclaimed, because they sympathise with users and present to them viable use cases in real life.

That’s what you can see on their front page right now, the different ways which you could utilise their product (in this case, the iPad) to enhance the quality of life on Earth. This is as opposed to other companies, who like to brag about their new tech for show and tell within the tech circle, and somehow push that into the market with a cheesy, unrealistic use case.

There are even ways they implement technological advances behind-the-scenes. This particularly occurs in their supply chain. A major factor that affects the way they design and manufacture their products is the manufacturing techniques used to machine the products’ main bodies as intricately as possible.

A prime example of this is the MacBook’s form change, from a plastic form made out of multiple parts to a singular, unibody form. The technology and implementation of that technology enabled them to mass produce millions of aluminium products which constitute the majority of what they’ve been able to sell in recent years.

Meanwhile, the rest of Silicon Valley strives to create something different, or something cool, or something that would blow your mind, if only it'd become a reality outside the tech bubble that is Silicon Valley. When you think Google, you don’t just think search, you think amazing things like balloon-distributed internet, self-driving cars, a whimsical working environment, spatially-aware phones, and a plethora of ultra-smart people that can help you achieve success in the tech industry, but all that’s used cover up the actuality of the impact they really have: the software that’s used by their market. None of these cool things have made it out of that bubble; when you think of Google outside of the SV tech bubble, there’s little else from Android, Chrome, YouTube, Maps, and a few cloud and search services, a lot of which have been around for about half a decade now. I don't mean to discredit these products, but to put Google on a pedestal and call them winners at innovation is going quite a stretch. (Sidenote: Search "google innovation" and you'll see more of what I mean)

Facebook’s rising up to become another Google: recently they’ve acquired WhatsApp and Oculus. Little have they revealed about what a social networking company would do with an ultra-popular messaging app and the makers of revolutionary AR technology, the latter being quite peculiar. When asked about the reasons behind the Oculus acquisition, Mark Zuckerberg replied, "We want to start focusing on building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile ... History suggests that there will be more platforms to come and that whoever builds and defines these will not only shape all the experiences that our industry builds, but also benefit financially and strategically” (via Greetings from Planet Facebook). In other words, somehow, someway, Facebook will make use of Oculus, and they probably will and become financially successful, but his remarks seem to hold very little substance and vision when you take a peek past the PR front.

While the rest of the industry puts their money on wearables, Facebook thinks it's different for putting its money on VR, when in fact it isn’t really different at all. They’re still just betting and taking chances. A company like Apple actually goes out and puts its strengths to use. They use their empathy and understanding of human behaviour to conceptualise and market their devices. They use their access to technology to, like I said, develop ways in which they could improve the quality and quantity of their output. They use their competence of the importance of design thinking to solve human problems and address certain issues. And of course, they use their passion for creating something great to keep it all under wraps, even if they might want to show it to the whole world before it’s even done. They make sure that nothing they've put out into the market is there in vain.

Conclusion

WWDC has become what I like to think the only real surprise Apple has to offer every year, since very little rumors surround the event, or at least very little that have as much validity. If they announce something new, two things could happen on that fateful morning. They could announce that new, much-anticipated smartwatch, and no matter how good it may be, the rest of the industry would jump on them for being late to the party…well, officially, at least. And I'd bet that they'd still be successful in spite of that, perhaps like the iPhone is now.

The second, a completely new category nobody predicted. In that situation, the whole industry could potentially be shaken once more, but for different reasons. You see, Apple could go on and make another wave of cash on whatever that product is and stomp on anyone in their path for a long time coming. Again. People could praise it as a landmark innovation of its time. Again. The rest of the industry would have to somehow laugh it off and regret it later. Again. Then they’d have to follow along. Again. But I can’t help but imagine that by now it would teach a valuable lesson and promote a dire need for products designed to last and hold a stronger sentimental and functional value to their users more than an incapable, disposable smartphone ever could.

I think it’s time for tech companies to stop goofing off, to stop following the money, to stop creating microcosmic environments wherein they could do no wrong and face the facts. The majority of the tech market consists of regular, ordinary human beings that have many anatomical and cognitive functions in common; they go to work, go to school, love to have fun, document experiences, and want to share those experiences with the world. Simple. Tech giants should be able to work it out from there.