Don’t believe the “wearable tech” hype

Detail of a Google Glass prototype, showing an ear-and-nose-mounted headset with a camera and screen mounted over the right eye.SwiftKey: Top 10 tech predictions for the future

Last week SwiftKey (or rather TouchType Ltd), the company behind a sophisticated predictive keypad for Android devices (which I used for several years before switching to Swype and several of my family and friends still use) published the above article on the things mobile users had mentioned in a survey of 20,000 smartphone users. Responses included better batteries, voice recognition and cross-device integration, but the thing that they put first, and said came up again and again, was wearable technology, with one respondent writing: “Devices which are wearable, always on and are continuously learning about the owner”. Frankly, I couldn’t think of anything worse.

I use some cloud services, including those that let you transfer dictionaries for keypads from device to device, but so far neither of the companies that offer these particular services have been swallowed up by Apple, Google or any of the other major companies that offer free cloud services (I never use the Google keypad; it’s much too basic). However, any device that I could wear on my head and which learns everything about me is likely to be made by a major American data mining company which will then use the data to target me for advertising or detect who I’m seeing (whether or not they have a mobile phone themselves), or exactly what books I’m browsing or what food I make or order (rather than just what shop I’m in). In short, this kind of wearable tech is one more step into my life to allow these companies to take, one that I’m not willing to allow them to. Besides, tracking mobile phones means that data is only gathered about the movements of the phones (and thus, their owners); if someone wears a wearable device with a camera, it scans everyone they meet, whether they have a phone (or otherwise consent to such information being gathered) or not.

Most of my wish-list for mobile technology consists of getting existing things to work better, not allowing it to intrude into my life in new ways that might seem ‘exciting’ to some people, and tell other people or organisations. Sadly, technology is developing in a way that gives companies more and more control over what you can do with it, and the user much less. As a case in point, I recently bought a MacBook Pro, the only remaining Mac laptop with both a standard-resolution display and a proper hard drive; all their other laptops now have the Retina display and Flash storage rather than a hard drive, and the Flash drives have much lower capacity, for a higher price, than a normal hard drive. Worse, they have changed the number of ports, with the Retina models lacking an Ethernet port. These reflect the assumption that you will store your photos, videos, music etc “in the cloud”, i.e. on their servers, and will not need to install another operating system besides theirs (e.g. Linux or even Windows) on their machines (Retina displays still don’t work properly on Linux, and there have been reports of firmware updates messing it up again once it’s been made to work). This, however, rather defeats the object of my buying the laptop.

What I’d like is applications that work better, made by developers who listen to bug reports and feature requests and act on them, rather than letting them sink to the bottom of a feature poll or make ridiculous excuses (see left for an example of an obstructive developer knocking back a perfectly sensible suggestion). When it comes to keypads, I would like to see more and prettier themes (particularly on SwiftKey) and better context-sensitivity: a prediction should be based on the last two or three words, not just the last word, for example. Wearable tech has its uses, such as for some categories of disabled people and, I guess, for some workplace applications, but I wouldn’t like to be wearing Google Glass everywhere I go (and it’s not an option when you’re driving anyway — it’s illegal). The thing I’d most like from my phone is for the battery to last more than eight hours with moderate usage, even if expecting them to last a week like my last feature phone did is unrealistic. I like my smartphone because it’s about the right size to get things done on the go, and keep me in touch with friends and family, give me something to do when I’m at a loose end (and is lighter than a book, and can store hundreds if I so wish). It’s a useful device, not a niche gimmick. But it’s no substitute for a computer (I’ve found that even a tablet isn’t, hence the new laptop), and a watch or a pair of glasses that runs Android won’t be a substitute for a smartphone, either.

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