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Physical Apps Featured Signal of Change: SoC784 March 2015

For a wide range of applications, the smartphone is a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none. Despite smartphones' ability to complete an astounding diversity of tasks, these tasks are contained within apps that lack ease of use and convenience for many consumer segments. For example, users must take their phone out of a pocket or purse, unlock the phone, find and load the app, and then finally complete the desired task. Apps now enable users to change television channels on the living-room TV set with their smartphone; however, a person living in the 1970s likely would view the long and cumbersome process of opening the TV-remote app as a step backward from the simple process of pressing a button on a traditional remote control. Likewise, using a smartphone to control thermostats, door locks, light switches, and household appliances is more cumbersome than is controlling them using conventional methods. Whereas some consumer groups might appreciate having the ability to use one device to operate the majority of their electronic devices, household appliances, and information channels, most consumer segments likely will see such a capability as an exercise in doability rather than practicality. Using a smartphone to complete an action can be relatively slow in comparison with using a dedicated object; for example, using a smartphone to turn on a light takes longer than does simply flipping a switch. Setting up a smartphone to complete an action can be a complex process, requiring users to find the right app for the right app ecosystem, download the app, and connect it appropriately. And unlike with, say, a kitchen clock, a quick glance at a smartphone seldom provides users with the information they are seeking. New single-purpose products, however, emulate popular smartphone apps and features, thereby providing users with increased utility without requiring them to endure the tediousness of frequently accessing and operating a smartphone.

Many existing and future smartphone apps provide inspiration for physical apps—stand-alone products that focus solely on a specific task.

Personal-assistant apps such as Apple's (Cupertino, California) Siri, Google's (Mountain View, California) Google Now, and Microsoft's (Redmond, Washington) Cortana are becoming increasingly popular among smartphone users; however, with all but a few phones, users must take the phone out of their pocket or purse and (at the very least) activate the phone's screen before interacting with the virtual assistant. In contrast, the Amazon Echo from (Seattle, Washington) and Cubic from Cubic Robotics (Palo Alto, California)—which is using an Indiegogo (San Francisco, California) campaign to raise funds—are dedicated devices that provide users with access to personal-assistant apps. These small desktop devices, which plug in and therefore are not constrained by battery life, contain microphones and speakers and always listen for a user to ask them questions. For example, Cubic activates when a user speaks the wake-up command, "Hey, Cubic." These devices offer a substantial user-interface benefit because users do not have to stop what they are doing to ask a question. For example, a Cubic user with ingredients on his or her hands could ask, "Hey, Cubic, how many ounces are in three cups?" and quickly receive a spoken reply. In contrast, a smartphone user would have to wash his or her hands, find and unlock a smartphone, and open Google Now before asking a question.

London, England–based interaction designer Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino developed Good Night Lamp (—a product that emulates some of the core functions of people-tracking apps such as Apple's Find My Friends and Life360's (San Francisco, California) Life360. Good Night Lamp is an internet-connected house-shaped light. Through its internet connection, the light communicates with one or several smaller matching house-shaped lights. When a user turns on the light of the main unit, the smaller connected units illuminate as well, wherever they are in the world. Family members living apart or people in long-distance relationships can use the Good Night Lamp to let one another know when they are at home by turning on the light of the main unit when they come home and shutting it off when they leave.

Vitality's (Los Angeles, California) GlowCap is an electronic pill-bottle cap that imitates the core functions of pill-schedule apps that require the user to log data in a smartphone app. The device, which replaces a traditional pill-bottle cap, uses a built-in sensor to track dosage activity automatically and emits a gentle glow to remind users to take their pills. If users still do not take their pills, the GlowCap will glow brightly and send a notification to their smartphone. The product is ideal for forgetful people because people who are likely to forget to take their pills are also likely to forget to use a smartphone app to log when they take their pills.

Ambient Devices' (Cambridge, Massachusetts) Energy Joule product emulates key functions of electrical-power-consumption-measuring apps. Energy Joule is a small display device that wirelessly communicates with a user's smart meter to display power-usage trends and other information. The color of the display changes to reflect real-time variations in the price of electricity (red indicates high energy prices, whereas green signals average or low energy prices). The device provides users with easy-to-use, at-a-glance information and can help users reduce power consumption in an almost playful way.

Despite competition from modern tablets, which are advanced reading devices with multiple functionalities, dedicated e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle continue to sell well. Such single-purpose e-readers use electronic-paper displays that do not strain users' eyes as much as tablet screens (typically LCDs) do—particularly in bright sunlight and in the dark. For this reason, many consumers believe that dedicated e-readers with electronic-paper displays are superior to tablets for long reading sessions.

Single-purpose devices may also have vastly longer product life cycles than smartphones do. Whereas smartphones may have a relatively short two-year life cycle, single-purpose devices may have a life cycle comparable to that of an appliance, lasting a decade or more. Because of the simplicity, longevity, and ease of use of single-purpose devices, users may prefer them over apps on multipurpose devices. Smartphones and other multipurpose devices are here to stay, but product developers might find that many existing and future smartphone apps provide inspiration for physical apps—stand-alone products that focus solely on a specific task.