Apple Watch: Take it personally

My Harvard Nieman Foundation paper on smartwatches and the media was published this week

In the interviews I carried out for it, one word came up so often it was uncanny: Personal. As I mention in the report, it was used 19 times in the original Apple Watch announcement.

So it’s no surprise then to see how prominently it features in Jony Ive’s FT interview today in ‘How To Spend It’. Here’s a quote:

“I think of what preoccupied Steve in the 1970s: it was making the unobtainable power of the computer personal. And when he came back to Apple in 1996, the first thing we worked together on was the iMac, which was a personal consumer computer. So I think Apple’s contribution has always been at its most significant when it’s trying to make personal products. And this watch is clearly the most personal product we’ve made.”

Apple definitely want us to think the watch is personal. I still find it a little hard to interpret – What does an ‘impersonal’ watchlp look like? – but I think the coordinated focus on positioning the watch in this way is in part an acknowledgement of the fact that wearable tech is a very different prospect to consumers than the smartphone. As the FT piece points out, the Watch brings “fashion, technology and luxury” together, and the Watch’s 34 possible designs so far revealed definitely make customisation part of the idea of what’s personal.

A few other things stood out to me in the interview.

“It’s technology worn on the wrist: I sensed an inevitability to it”

It’s an interesting interpretation of the rise of wearable tech, to imagine basically three forces combining to create these devices:

1) Smartphone technology succeeding in miniaturising processors, batteries and screen technology to the point where creating a smartwatch is possible

2) Smartphone manufacturers (one particularly with falling profits) looking to add product and therefore revenue lines to counter a pretty mature western market for smartphones.

3) Fitness bands like Jawbone and Fitbit demonstrating the utility and openness of consumers to wearing tech.

Apple Gold?

Ive “explains how the molecules in Apple gold are closer together, making it harder than standard gold”.

The Apple Watch Edition is supposed to be 18-karat gold, which sounds like its pretty standard for luxury watches. Have Apple genuinely done something revolutionary with gold at a molecular level? Truly this is the age of wonders. Ars Technica have dug up an Apple patent that might give us a clue.

Nieman Visiting Fellowship update

I’m two weeks into my Nieman fellowship about the future of wearable technology and content and I wanted to post a quick update. It’s hard to ignore the weather here, with Boston due to break the record for monthly snowfall this weekend (in less than half a month), having run out of places to put snow. The snow days and tough weather have made the work pretty focused, having spent a lot of time sat in my warm 6th floor apartment and only occasionally braving the -15 temperatures for pancake-based reasons. Looking north over wintery Cambridge, my idea of excitement has been watching piles of snow sliding off roofs in the rare sunny spells, and once or twice the snow ploughs narrowly missing a crazy jogger.


I’ve also, though, had the chance to have some amazing conversations with people I would never normally get chance to talk to, mostly from outside the publishing industry, who’ve all had their own unique take on a subject which is complicated and slippery enough to be of interest to almost anyone who’s wondering about the next few years of consumer technology. I’ve heard from a German psychologist about how smartphone addiction might affect wearable adoption, from an analyst about the peculiarities of forecasting nascent technology product categories, and from other fascinating folk I’ll talk more about in later posts.

Analysis of the kind I’m collecting at this point really is a battle of ideas, since each emerging technology succeeds or fails in its own way. This week, for example, Android Wear was written off as a failure for having shifted 720,000 units in its first six months. Available on a handful of devices, the best (the Moto 360) was only officially released in September and was only available to buy intermittently after that. That shipping figure, in context, is about 4 times as many units as the iPod sold in its first 6 months, and about half of the sales of the iPhone in its first 2 quarters also. If in 6 years there are half as many Android Wear devices as there are iPhones now, I don’t think we’d call it a disaster. (It is a lot less than the iPad though.)

Quarter after release iPod iPhone iPad Android Wear devices
1 0.125 0.27 3.27 ?
2 0.057 1.12 4.19 ?
First 6 months 0.182 1.39 7.46 0.72

At the same time as I don’t think Android Wear’s performance so far is that bad, it’s hard to disagree that these early smartwatches can still feel like “a solution looking for a problem”, as Ben Wood described it to me last week. The benefits they deliver are incremental rather than transformative. The software is underdeveloped on Android Wear, as it will be on the Apple Watch, which at launch will only really be able to work as a display for processes and applications being beamed from the iPhone.


And yet, if we don’t think wearables are at least part of the future, it presents us with the scarier prospect of having coming to a bit of a dead end in terms of mobile technological innovation. In the UK, over 75% of people have a smartphone now; many of those phones have more pixels than the eye can see; our smartphone cameras are largely better than the personal digital cameras they replaced. We succeeded first in miniaturising our phones past the point of practicality, and now we’ve reached the upper limit of their usable size also. It’s hard to see where innovation is going to come in mobiles, and even harder to accept that the smartphone addiction we’re collectively in the grips of can continue indefinitely as we spend the rest of our lives experiencing all of our sublimated social needs as humans through a 5 inch black mirror.

So, wearables may be a bigger front in the battle of where consumer technology is going to take us than we yet realise. Will these augmenting devices, lightweight and incapable of delivering the kind of transposed content we’re used to seeing transferred onto smartphone (from a newsaper to a mobile site, from a cinema to an iTunes download) play a part in allowing people to engage more with the world around them and less with distracting technology? Or will they fail the test of consumer interest, despite the collective marketing focus of the global consumer technology industry in its keenness to create a new product category and accompanying revenue stream? I’m still not sure. But I’ll blog more about it in the next few days. After two weeks in Massachusetts, the one thing I know about wearables for certain is this – a Moto360 can survive prolonged exposure to cold temperature.

Today’s #icicleoftheday of the day is… me

A photo posted by Jack Riley (@_jackriley) on

Nieman Visiting Fellowship

The Nieman Journalism Institute at Harvard have just announced the 2015 visiting fellows, and I’m very pleased to say that I’m one of them. I’ll be spending February on campus at Harvard, researching, writing and presenting a report on the likely impact of smartwatches on the journalism business, as well as looking at the product development of wearable apps. We’ve seen flashes already of the new and exciting content experiences this might involve, from the FT’s FastFT speed reading app to the Yahoo News Digest icon floating on the Apple Watch’s 3D-rendered home screen, to other futuristic and baffling ideas that I’m sure are only just being dreamed up. For me, the potential is huge, and twofold; firstly, because of the new sensors and contexts the device allows – biometric awareness amongst them – and secondly the potential for a permanently potentially visible and very low friction screen. Added to that, consider this: if your smartphone feels personal to you, imagine how personal a device you actually wear all day can feel.

I’m excited to get started and am already amassing reports, sources and ideas for what my project will cover and involve. If you’re interested in the same subject, if you have experience of developing smartwatch apps (or hardware), or if you’re just someone who wants to get ahead of the next big change in how technology is affecting where we spend our attention day to day, send me a note at jack dot riley [at] huffingtonpost dot com, or on Twitter at @_Jackriley or Facebook here.


“Is Audience Development just a polite way of saying ‘Growth Hacking’?”

…is a question I was asked last week, on a panel at an AOP event chaired by Digital Spy’s David Moynihan about the use of data in publishing businesses. It didn’t come from the audience, who were mostly keen to know about how to use data and analytics organisationally, but from a fellow panellist who was keen to get more into the troubled semantics of the emerging discipline of ‘making a digital publishing business bigger, quickly’. I was there to talk about how our cross disciplinary team, working very hard to attack the problem of how to grow our AOL sites in the UK from a lot of different angles, had got the Huffington Post from 4.9m multiplatform UK UVs last June (the month I joined), to 8.9m UK UVs in January (we use Comscore for external reporting). We’ve called that approach Audience Development.

Audience Development is tricky to define, but I wasn’t prepared to have it conflated with growth hacking and be done with it. Firstly, growth hacking is a clumsy, showy name that, as Emily Delmont notes well here does a disservice to hacking and marketing (in a pure product/startup context, marketing covers what in a publishing context is achieved by editorial). Secondly, hacking brings to mind cracking the code to a system and applying a quick fix that somehow defies the laws of what should be possible. In my experience, there are very few quick fixes like that around in publishing; most successes involve teamwork, and time, and above all hard work.

So, my reply was that vice versa – growth hacking is an impolite way of saying Audience Development.

So… what is Audience Development?

For the panel, I defined Audience Development as a data-driven approach to growth and strategy, operating in the space between product, editorial and the directly revenue generating (sales, partnerships, business development etc) areas of the business. That strategy might be to support a particular brand, or to deliver a certain type of engagement (eg video views). It might be to grow a specific audience or to improve a certain product. However you apply it, an organisation investing in Audience Development is saying that it values and it wants to be judged by data, which for a publisher is, even now, not always a given. The Audience Development team is not only where that data resides, but more specifically it’s also where it’s possible to analyse it, find patterns within it, compare it to what we expect and hope to see and to learn and act on what we’ve measured. Not all of the data is internal, and the actions taken because of it aren’t always obviously product-based or editorial.

Since successful digital businesses need to be internally highly networked and externally highly iterative, to facilitate lots of change happening very quickly an organisation needs a centre of gravity that can pull data together to form and then test a strategy quickly and with an eye on the bigger picture. In a publishing context, as I said on the panel, this dovetails neatly with two trends –

1) Changes to product development associated with the growth of lean approaches to product, where analytics are required to validate iterative product changes, and the necessity of “earned” and “owned” user acquisition models. (It’s a classic mistake for publishers transitioning to digital, and a hangover from print bundling, to attempt ‘build it and they will come’ products; one of Audience Development’s roles is to encourage product teams always to consider how and why people will use a product in the real world)

2) The necessity of data-driven approaches to editorial. Another thing the panel touched on was the debate recently about the use of metrics in the newsroom. That’s a whole post and more in its own right, but suffice to say I am firmly in the camp of greater access to data, for lots of reasons, not least of which is that it brings journalists closer to their readers.

There isn’t an area of the publishing business on which this isn’t brought to bear, but it was good to talk about and debate this broad idea of the subject in more detail. My honest belief is that any publisher without an Audience Development or equivalent cross-disciplinary team at its centre will really struggle in the next few years in an environment where content, technology, user behaviour and monetisation are changing so quickly.


I’m responsible for Audience Development for AOL titles in the UK, including the Huffington Post and MyDaily.

Previously I was Head of Digital Audience and Content Development at The Independent and Evening Standard. I was responsible for founding, building and launching Independent Voices, as well as rebuilding and relaunching (25m+ monthly users) on desktop and mobile, (including migration from, building a new community platform with Gigya, partnering with Facebook to launch social reading app Recently Read (5m+ installations), mobile apps including iPad app, Google Currents edition (1m+ installations) and more. While I was responsible for the Independent’s digital audience it grew in two years from 10m monthly uniques to over 26m monthly uniques.

I’ve spoken at events and conferences including News:Rewired, The Guardian’s Changing Media Summit, AOP’s data summit, The Russian Embassy’s yearly Digital BBQ and Facebook Developers Garage London.

In the past I wrote about music, technology and culture for The Independent, played guitar and sang in bands, and did an English degree at Cambridge University, where I got a first in my dissertation on the poet Christopher Smart. I’m originally from Manchester.

You can find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Foursquare and get in touch with me at jackodriley [at] gmail dot com.