Episode One Hundred and Fifty Eight: WATCH; BERG

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Of course I’m not going to be able to resist and will be writing about the new WATCH today. 3:32pm and at home, taking about half an hour to write this before getting on with some chores – it’s XOXO Week here in Portland and we have visitors coming to stay, so it’s Get The House Ready time.


Only one point, really. Or at least a thread to pull on and to see where it takes me. One of the things that stood out today was the Digital Crown[1], the scroll wheel-ish input mechanism that repurposes the conventional clock Crown and adds a healthy dollop of do-what-I-mean user interface design in software and potentially some haptic (sorry, taptic) feedback that will let you know when you’ve completed the requisite number of degrees of movement to ker-chunk into the next option category. But.

I’m aware that what I’m about to do is offer up one of those “Steve Jobs Wouldn’t Have…” opinions, the kind that can invariably be shooed away just by pointing at the Flower Power iMac G3. I don’t particularly care what the Digital Crown does, or how it does it, but more the name that’s been chosen for it. Previous Apple innovations have been given names like Thunderbolt, Lightning, Retina Display, Magic Mouse, MagSafe, FireWire and so on – but now we have names like Digital Crown which sounds just… off, to me. Yes, sure we get that it’s digital. You’re taking something old, the crown from a watch, and making it… digital? That’s kind of what you do, Apple. I had perhaps expected better. Names are a difficult thing, and you’ll note that I’m not offering up an alternative. And if I’m just reading the runes and post-hoc rationalising, I could see something like Digital Crown being a working title and then everyone using it as a name and before you know it, you’ve shipped something that has possibly more regal connotations than user interface ones. And, as it happens, is it *that* different from the Scroll Wheel?

And then, I suppose, some other reckons. I don’t yet have the concern, as some others do, about the whole “four different ways” to interact with the watch. Touchscreens are pretty de-riguer, and the Digital Crown (ugh) seems intuitive enough – though I’m intrigued to see if it will always work in the right direction, or if it will be in opposition to what feels natural (or did feel natural) on peoples’ touchpads.

The price is an interesting one as well. I’ve been saying for a while that we’ve been drafting off of Moore’s law, but I’m not sure how much that is going to continue. We have cheaper phones, but I don’t think it’s because of the so-called law, more that there are certain players who have built up manufacturing and supply-chain infrastructure. My naive view is this: it doesn’t matter if the proccessor in the WATCH gets smaller and faster or more energy efficient – that’s not going to be a significant proportion of the bill of materials. What will make the most user impact will be things like better displays and better battery life – neither of which, it seems, have directly benefitted from the suggestion that transistor count for a given area will double every year and a half.

Some other thoughts:

– watch faces are going to be an in-app purchase, obviously. Why wouldn’t they be?
– I had quipped, on Twitter, that it looked like it was going to be a pain to get a WPA2 passphrase into a WATCH, but it looks like they’re permanently tethered to your phone. So there’s that, I suppose, and the fact that it looks like they don’t even have wi-fi.

The other thing is that whilst, thank God, Apple didn’t just cram the iOS interface onto a watch-shaped and sized thing, they did do something a bit… different? Cook makes reference to this in the Keynote saying that it wouldn’t have made sense to do that, but I’m not persuaded yet about the utility (or need) for notifications to come up in on a wrist-based device. The fact that I *can* get Facebook Friend notifications or Twitter notifications or even email notifications on my wrist is feels like something Apple might have had an opinion about in the past about whether it was right or proper for that type of device to have that type of functionality. Of course, back then, you could also justify a lack of functionality on constraints such as processor, screen and battery life. Not so these days. There are nice uses. The Starwood Hotels app that lets you use the watch as a door access device is one, but for me, what’s interesting about that particular interaction is that it’s screenless, or that it doesn’t need the screen on the device.

There’s just a *lot* going on with the Watch. Perhaps it’s a surfeit of processing power and battery – well, as much as you can have a surfeit of such things in such a tiny package. But a lot of the functionality demoed – calling to mind things like Matt Webb’s early thinking about Glances (of which such information didn’t feel like it was particularly glanceable, not in that peripheral vision kind of way) just felt like a bit of throwing at the dartboard and seeing what sticks. It’s nice to see Apple reflect usage of emoji – from not having the keyboard in iOS to having it available if you knew what you were doing, kind of, to having it as an explicit installable keyboard – in the Watch. But then there’s Digital Touch – the Drawing Thing with the Hearts and the Heart Beats and you’re a bit: OK, I’ve seen the concept demo for this before. And you guys tried it out and it’s going to work? Using an Apple Watch as a small viewfinder whilst you hold your phone aloft? Would’ve looked cheesy in a Samsung ad. Something you might do at a gig? Maybe?

More later, inevitably.

2.0 BERG

You should know your history. BERG was one of those startups that, I feel, a whole bunch of people in London were jealous of. And not just a startup, really – one that was very good at talking about itself, and one that mostly epitomised what I’d call the Alternative Valley – a more considered, more whimsical and English sensibility, rather than the brashness of the West Coast. It makes me sad to be writing this in the past tense, as BERG closed its doors today, in its four hundredth and eighty third week[1]. Other people better than I have written better eulogies[2], all I really have to say is something like this:

I knew them when they were Schulze & Webb – and didn’t really know Schulze that well. Webb I knew back from early blogging days – he was at Oxford, I was at Cambridge and we were – are – roughly the same age. He’d built Dirk, was obviously a fan of Douglas Adams and we both had had our brains exploded by Greg Egan and books like Permutation City and Diaspora in the early 2000s. Webb would go on to do a stint at the BBC – in particular, the Audio and Music Interactive part – in that typical progression of Public Serviceland where he’d work with people like Tom Coates and Matt Biddulph. And then, of course, Dopplr grew up alongside, and Matt Jones eventually joined them.

They’ve made such influential work. The Chernoff faces of Schooloscope, a 4iP project. SVK, a comic book with a tangible superpower. They would be easy to make fun of for the videos they made instead of the *things* that they made. But those videos had the right stuff in them, the right ideas in them, and you just knew that they were bleeding smartness through pixels. And the crew that the Experimental Rocket Group accreted around themselves: I’m probably missing people, but Nick Ludlam, Tom Armitage, Alice Bartlett, Timo Arnall, Andy Huntingdon, Helen Rogers, Joe Malia, Denise Wilton. Such smart people concentrated in such a small space. Whenever you went to visit them, especially when the triumvirate of Jones, Schulze and Webb were around and you had this corona of superpeople orbiting them, it felt like a sort of Manhattan project. Like someone had left a fissionable pile of neurons over in the room and if you didn’t do something then something big, something dramatic, something *smart* was going to happen and knock everything over for a thousand mile radius.

We were all jealous of BERG. They did the smart work. They showed us how it could be done. Some of the stuff, I have to admit, might not have made sense from the outside. I’m sad that they’re not around. I’m irritated that others didn’t see what they could’ve done with the appropriate corporate fulcrum and lever to change the world. Instead, we’ll be cursed with idiot washing machines and an internet of things that almost, but not quite, resembles something like a teasmaid.

So this sounds sad, and it is, because they were a unique grouping of people at a unique time, pointing and tilting at a windmill that we needed tilted. But each and every one of them will go off to do some amazing things. I prefer to think of this as an explosion, not a whimper – and that seeds of BERGiness will erupt all over the place. That they’ll go off and change the world in different ways.

I’m still jealous of them.

[1] Week 483 – Berg
[2] For BERG, My London Launchpad – Warren Ellis

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