16 September 2014

On Shareable Media: What is the Apple Watch and what is it doing on your wrist?

Xerox Palo Alto Researchers using Tabs, Pads and Boards (Weiser 1991)
Three years ago I wrote a post about Apple's strategy towards digital devices entitled, Tabs, Pads and Boards: Why Apple et al will make a HDTV, which attempted to understand the way in which certain material forms and sizes were beginning to be sedimented in relation to media production and consumption. The aim of the article was to try to divine Apple's strategy in relation to dividing up screens by using the concepts of tabs, pads and boards, drawn from the work of Xerox Palo Alto Researchers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was not just to provide an analysis of Apple but also general trends in the technology industry by using Apple as an exemplar. One of the key considerations was how screens are entangled with space and the norms and values of usage which correspond to shared media practices. As such I originally thought that this framework might play out in the following fashion,

    • Tabs: iPhone, iPod
    • Pads: iPad, iPad Mini, Macbook,
  • SHARED: 
    • Boards: AppleTV? 

As I stated in the original article, "the success of the iPad, and other new tablet-like devices, shows that what people want to be able to do with their media will become increasing important in both differentiating computational products, but also in structuring the technology and media industries", and I think that this still holds true in relation to trying to understand how computation is driving consumption habits and medial change. Indeed I argued,
Through a number of refinements and empirical experiments [Xerox] settled on range of device categories that seemed to be needed to negotiate a computational media landscape, dividing them into three classes: tabs, pads, and boards: tabs are 'inch-scale machines that approximate active Post-It notes', pads are 'foot-scale ones that behave something like a sheet of paper (or a book or a magazine)', and boards are 'yard-scale displays that are the equivalent of a blackboard or bulletin board' (Weiser 1991: 80). It does not take much imagination to see that Apple's strategy has followed the Xerox research to a remarkable degree, except for one glaring exception [of the TV screen] (Berry 2011).
I think it is useful to revisit some of the arguments I made in light of an extremely interesting new addition to the line up (and loss to some extent of the original iPod). This is exemplified by the Apple Watch, a personal, intimate technology that is part of the space called wearables, that has analysts, like Benedict Evans, trying to understand how they fit into everyday life practices (Evans 2014). Again, I argued, "Xerox team saw computation as a distributed system, not a self-contained device. That is, that they understood the importance of the network for computational media. This immediately transformed the kinds of information that each of these classes of technical device was able to use and transmit to others, and most importantly these devices were programmed to understand the importance of the real-time stream, above and beyond that of historical data and media. Indeed, they even referred to 'liveboards'".

I think that this framework becomes even more relevant in relation to the Apple line up in light of the revision of their technologies. Both because of the fact that the original framework of pads, tabs and boards, still seems to be a useful heuristic for thinking about this, but also because Apple has responded to user feedback with what I think is an intensification of the divisions that Xerox had developed. So in my earlier formulation I thought that the pad corresponded to the iPhone and iPod, but it seems that this technology was not intimate enough and actually is not as private/personal as originally envisioned. In fact in reworking these categories I think that the structure of experience is now spread across the devices in the following way,
    • Tabs: iWatch
    • Pads: iPhone 6, iPhone 6+
  • SHARED: 
    • Boards: iPad Air/AppleTV/? 
Here I am also connecting these types to normative practices (personal, semi-shared, shared) in relation to usage of the devices. I think that this is important because the usage of the iPhone and iPod, which seemed likely extremely personal devices in their early iterations have in fact become increasing public and sharable, albeit not as public as a TV screen. This has been magnified by the increase in display size of both new models of the iPhone 6, now sized at 4.7" and 5.5" (up from the iPhone 5's 4" display and the iPhone 4's 3.5" display). The iPhone 6/+ is now also a wallet, which needs to be "displayed" to purchase goods etc, but also the screen size is more amenable to sharing information (who hasn't take a photo and then passed their phone around a group, for example). 

The way in which the Apple Watch has pushed all the devices up this framework, points back to the original formulation of the tab at Xerox, as an inch-scale machine, and which can transmit extremely personal and even intimate information to the user without others being aware. Here, I am thinking of the new "taptic engine" which can transmit discrete vibrations and "taps" through haptic technology to the wrist. Together with nice touches like social media sharing of picture and messages, not to mention the ability to send your heartbeat to a friend. 

The Apple Watch functions as a sophisticated personal GPS, giving directions and routes through haptic feedback as discreet taps for turn left, turn right. Here, there are links to notions of a transitional object that mediates movement between different kinds of spaces, home to public space, place to place and around an unfamiliar location or city. Of course, the Apple Watch still enables looking at photos, listening to music (via bluetooth headphones), voice-messaging, and voice-operated commands using Siri which makes it potentially a very intimate repository of identity and memories. But the Apple Watch is also very much a fashion device, and again will be strongly linked to personal self-identity and public signalling of status and what Bourdieu (1986) called distinction. 

This analysis still leaves the question of boards somewhat hanging. Should we expect the iPad to become increasingly board-like, very much a shared consumption and display device, or will Apple finally produce a form of television, perhaps a 4K or 5K version, that completes the spread of categories? I think that the work done at Xerox provides a powerful way of understanding the way in which our current devices are morphing in size and capability, and continues to give us at least a basic map of the future trajectories of sharable and shared media. For that reason the next couple of years will be interesting in relation to computational media, communications technologies and social networks and their continued penetration of everyday life. 


Berry, D. M. (2011) Tabs, Pads and Boards: Why Apple et al will make a HDTV, Stunlaw, accessed 16/09/2014, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/tabs-pads-and-boards-why-apple-et-al.html

Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction. London: Routledge.

Evans, B. (2014) Ways to think about watches, accessed 16/09/2014, http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2014/9/15/ways-to-think-about-watches

Weiser, M. (1991) The Computer for the 21st Century, Scientific American, accessed 18/04/2011, http://nano.xerox.com/hypertext/weiser/SciAmDraft3.html

1 comment:

  1. I find it really interesting that, in these technologies designed to break free of the limitations of handwritten or verbal communication, we are so inclined to frame them in our minds in terms of physical paper communication tools that we're familiar with. I guess that has always happened though - writing seeks to reframe phonetic speech, typing seeks to reframe writing, and so on. I think it actually wouldn't be a good choice for Apple to try to attempt to go much bigger than the iPad. Our media world is very network-oriented, but the networks we construct encourage nodes to be very distinct and individual. We get a lot of pleasure out of having personalized methods of media consumption. However, I do think Apple will soon go the same route that Windows is going right now with combining their mobile devices and PCs into one hybrid device. If a huge, crystal clear iMac was running some desktop-friendly version of iOS, would it count as a "board"?


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