Predicting the future is hard

Smartwatches are coming. By Christmas they will be everywhere. And we won't know how we ever lived without them. Or so we are told to believe. But if you were a company making a smartwatch, how would you know what features to build? How would you know which features will fit the "something people didn't know they wanted" category? You have to predict the future. Turns out, that's hard.

I'm doing a lot of wearables research right now for work. It got me thinking. How do successful companies like Apple make things that people didn't know they wanted? Certainly they take risks, and occasionally the risk fails (iPod HiFi, anyone), but most of the time they nail it. How do you do this? How do you predict what features will make someone want to use a device. How did Apple know that people wanted iPods before iPods were on the market. How do we know that people will want to move notifications from their phone to their watch, and that this is valuable enough to justify a multi-hundred dollar device.

The first strategy is to build a feature that is obvious and simply do a really good job of it. Lots of companies are trying this. Fitness tracking and notifications are two obvious features. This is why smart watch coverage focuses on those features. They are known problems that we can already solve (though perhaps not solve well, yet). These features are also valuable enough that there are also standalone devices which do just one or the other of these things. 

But this doesn’t answer the question of what will be the other killer features. Fitness bands are fixed function devices that will only ever do one thing well. Apple Watch and Android Wear are app platforms. They are built to expand and grow over time. The only reason to build such as system is for future features that we can't predict yet? What will be the killer apps? How do we predict the future?

The answer is we can’t.  Before these things are built we simply can’t know what will be good and useful, or bad and useless. We can make some educated guesses based on what are known problems, or existing solutions that we hope to replace, but until we actually build it we never really know. 

So build it we must.  I'm pretty sure this is what Apple does. They prototype things internally. Lots of things. Crazy things that will probably never ship. (Just look at some of their insane patents). Apple knows that only 1 out of 10 will be a good product idea, but they don’t know which one of the ten until they try them all.  You’ve just got to build it.

So, we have to build it. I don’t know what will be the killer apps in a few years that justify the wide spread adoption of smart watches. The only way to know is to build it.

Alan Kay famously said in 1971: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." He's still right.

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Posted March 21st, 2015

Tagged: future watch