You’ve likely heard of cord cutting, the trend toward cancelling cable TV in lieu of streaming video or no paid TV service at all. This trend, which is becoming more mainstream, is no longer just a behavior of innovators who test the waters of new technology. In fact, it’s so pervasive that media companies such as Disney, CBS, and HBO, have or are in the process of decoupling their programming from the traditional pay-TV distribution machine, now offering streaming services that don’t require you to buy a large bundle of channels, but rather subscribe to the core content they offer. As such, the future of TV distribution is being shaped in part by those that were willing to test new ways of delivering content to consumers.
While cord cutting has now seemingly become part of everyday life, we’re seeing the very beginning of what may be termed “phone cutting.” Phone cutters desire to leverage wearable technology, such as smartwatches, to offset the use of a smartphone and identify opportunities to leave their phone behind. This behavior falls before the early adoption stage we see in consumer technology; it’s not yet a trend, but more a trial, akin to the cord cutting we experienced a few years ago. The technology adoption lifecycle, a sociological model that describes the acceptance of a new innovation, labels the first group of people to use a new product as "innovators," representing less than three percent of the population. And that is where the phone cutter resides, facilitated this past week by Apple embedding LTE into the Series 3 Apple Watch.
Given the newness of the behavior, we can merely postulate on the extent to which wearable technology will offset the widespread use of smartphones. But, there are lessons from the past that offer a view into the future, as we were here in 2010 when the iPad was expected to replace laptops. A key learning from that adoption cycle is that dispersion of user activity is more common than replacement. So what changes in behavior should we expect from cellular connectivity on the wrist, and what limitations persist?
The appeal is simplistic: leave the phone behind and stay connected in your backyard, at the beach, the gym, or out for a run. Granted, a few smartwatches were already offering cellular connections, but integration into Apple Watch brings with it mass-market appeal and assimilation into the Apple ecosystem. Unlike early connected smartwatches, the Apple Watch is enabled by network level services such as NumberSync and DIGITS from AT&T and T-Mobile, respectively, allowing users to link their mobile phone number to other devices, not to mention the pure simplicity of Apple’s account synchronization that allows calls to bounce between Apple products with ease. Basic communication tasks such as texting, calling, emailing, and streaming music no longer require a phone. As phones increase in size, impacting portability, there are certain situations where the charm of a 1.5-inch screen clearly has its place.
This is the first generation of LTE-embedded smartwatches and that, along with a small form factor, brings limitations. For example, a high frequency of calls is bound to run down the battery and call quality will need to improve over time. Indeed, my friend looked like Dick Tracy, pulling his wrist to his face to order pizza delivery from his Apple Watch, yet had the watch been paired with AirPods the call would have been far less conspicuous. Further, iPhone-Apple Watch app compatibility is more widespread when the devices are on the same Wi-Fi network than when the watch is untethered and running solely on LTE. For example, a Skype notification will show on the watch when both devices are on the same Wi-Fi network, but when independent of iPhone, Skype is not supported on Apple Watch. A small screen also impacts touch interface making voice control vital, but that still is not as seamless as we would expect: even a minor act like adjusting a Bluetooth speaker’s volume using Siri from the Apple Watch remains challenging. While optimization is needed, these are the types of improvements solved by the user tweaking a few settings or through an operating system update.
The fact remains that there are numerous instances where a segment of the population will begin to leave their phone behind. Meanwhile, the dispersion of activities will be shaped by the innovators – the cord and phone cutters – tinkering with the integration of devices from a 1.5-inch smartwatch to a 65-inch smart TV.