How an Apple iWatch or Google Glass will affect mobile app usage

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

I was on the subway the other morning during rush hour, and it was crowded. Really crowded. As in, I-can-barely-breathe crowded. I was holding a knapsack and a book, which I couldn't read because I was sandwiched in between so many different people I didn't have enough room to hold it up in front of my face. And yet, nearby, I saw this woman hanging onto a bar with one hand to keep her balance, and with the other, she was gingerly handling a smartphone, using one finger to tap away at a mobile game. It seemed to involve popping bubbles of some kind, so it could have been anything, but it doesn't matter. The point is she was totally and completely immersed.

When developers start creating their apps and games I wonder if they picture how they will be used. I wonder if they keep in mind what people will actually be doing with their bodies--how they will be sitting if they're sitting, whether they'll have use of one hand or two, whether they will hold a phone comfortably in their lap or with their arm stretched out. These could become increasingly important questions because they will determine what the end experience will be and what kind of behaviors are most likely to manifest themselves.

There is obviously movement afoot to make computers more wearable than ever before, whether it's Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Project Glass or Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) rumored iWatch. Right now mobile devices, whether smartphones or tablets, are still external objects to be picked up and put down. When and if we no longer carry them but have them fastened to us in some way, developers will need to think even harder about the use case scenarios that will most likely encourage app use. I think for many consumers, apps are something we turn to when we're doing something else that doesn't feel interesting or important. For me, it includes standing in line, waiting for a friend to show up at a coffee shop or hanging out in front of a bank of elevators. The phone (and by extension the app) is an escape, and people often want that escape badly enough it almost doesn't matter where they are or what they have to do to attain it.

As apps become part of a wearable experience, we may see people become even more immersed, but there could also be some limitations on what's possible or what's likely. For example, if you're crammed on a subway pecking at a game, you may not be likely to watch a video ad or make an in-app purchase. If you're standing in line you might not be prepared to write a review of an app unless it's really, really fast and easy to do so. Sharing updates on social media about your app experience may be next to impossible in some circumstances today. Once you're wearing whatever it is you need to enjoy an app, some of those things might get easier and some things might get a lot harder.

This, of course, may still be a long way away. But if developers haven't spent time imagining the range of ways in which apps are accessed on smartphones, they may find themselves even farther behind once when and if wearable computing hits the mainstream. Customers may get all dressed up with technology, and developers need to make sure their apps have somewhere to go.--Shane