Even as recently as a month and a half ago, when I first applied for a Harvard Nieman Foundation fellowship to study the likely impact of the rise of smartwatches on content, the subject seemed more mysterious and futuristic than it is now. In the short time since then, Apple, Samsung, Motorola and the other wearable manufacturers have been squaring up, tweaking their products and getting ready for a multi-year assault on the consumer market, while content companies have started to take their first steps into wearable product development. With this flurry of activity, I'm excited to start my project at Harvard in February, where I'm researching and writing a report on how the relationship between smartwatches and content companies is going to develop.
Thinking about these new and exotic product categories, it's easy to call to mind the Steve Jobs line (from 1998!) that "people don't know what they want until you show it to them". Most members of the public have barely come into contact with wearables yet. It remains to be seen whether, once that happens, they'll have the appetite for them or not, but we know already that the tech industry has a lot riding on that happening. A whole new device category and resulting revenue stream is a tempting prospect in a market where smartphone adoption in the west and some parts of Asia is not far from saturation and intense competition makes getting an edge more difficult than ever.
So consider the place of publishers in this swirling picture of changing tastes, huge financial incentives to innovate, and dangerous pitfalls for those who don't. Working in the media through a period of intense change in people's technology usage over the past decade has felt at times like being a hapless bystander to a clash of tech titans: as if publishers were one of the tiny humans milling around terrified in the final scene of a Godzilla film, with the giants of Google and Apple duking it out above, knocking down your tower blocks and hospitals in the process. Most traditional publishers are only just adapting their business models for the shift in attention to mobile and social, even if their product and editorial teams were ahead of it a few years ago. Now, with a new category of smaller devices coming along, the industry faces the same challenge again of figuring what a compelling content and advertising experience feels like on a whole new set of products.
There are potentially huge opportunities to be had in this change. A smartwatch is almost always accessible and visible, unlike a phone which might be in your pocket or bag. It can sense more than a phone about what you're doing, from biometric and other awareness. It can work with a phone or tablet as a small first screen, so that notifications and other light data are not necessarily as disruptive as on a phone you might have to pick up and unlock to check. Think of all the time we could save just by eradicating 'empty checks' where you pick up and put down your phone again without even unlocking it. And consider all the new types of content and contexts that this opens up for publishers and content companies who are changing their output from a set of products to a set of services.
I'll be doing as much preparation before February as I can and trying to get as many opinions and as much data as possible. If you're interested in smartwatches and wearables and how they'll affect the news industry, drop me a line on email at jack dot riley at huffingtonpost dot com, on Twitter or Facebook.