Keep your scanners peeled.
- Michael Knight, Knight Rider
Every time ReadWrite publishes a story, I get a jolt. Literally. And I don't mind, because that good vibration may point us toward the news industry's wearable future.
Even when I'm away at a conference or traveling on business, I want to stay on top of ReadWrite's newsroom. So when I joined the publication a year ago, I signed up to get a text message when we tweeted a story. Soon afterwards, I turned off my phone's vibrate feature: There were just too many notifications for me to get shaken up every time one came in.
Yet when I started testing a Pebble smartwatch recently, I started getting those vibrations again. The Pebble's best feature is how it carries notifications automatically from your phone to a screen on your wrist. I found I didn't mind the gentle shake it gave me for every tweeted headline.
Already, we live in a sea of headlines. Twitter has defined this mode of information sharing. We have all become bureaus of the world's largest wire service, passing on 140-character bites of news to our subscribers.
If you haven't tried out a smartwatch like the Pebble, you do have a device that can give you a glimpse of what it's like. Take out your smartphone, and look at your lock screen. Now imagine the stream of updates you see condensed down to a screen that fits on your wrist. That will be the primary experience of using a smartwatch: Consuming bite-sized, timely bits of information, all day long.
The publishers who are using push notifications today are most prepared for the wearable world. Like Twitter messages, notifications have size limits. Android is more generous than iOS, but whatever the platform, we need to get ready for a world of constraint. Brevity is the soul of wit, and self-indulgent headline writers will seem witless on wearables. 100 characters or less will be the rule of thumb for headlines readers will thumb through.
One startup that seems wrist-ready is Circa News, which strings news stories together as a series of facts, only updating them as events warrant. I've admired its timely, well-written notifications, which keep me updated on fast-moving stories like the situation in Ukraine. It's always kept those alerts, which it calls "pushes," under 120 characters.
Circa employs its own editorial staff, rather than reformatting stories from other publications originally written for print or the desktop Web. It also has its own content-management system, which allows it to adapt quickly to new media. Already, Circa is preparing to launch on four different wearable platforms, a company representative tells me.
Meanwhile, Pebble has a number of apps in its online store targeted at news consumption, from feed readers to watchfaces that display breaking-news alerts. One app lets people read top stories from Hacker News, the developer-friendly discussion site, right on their wrists. One intriguing concept Pebble and other smartwatch makers could pursue is a "read it later" feature on headlines broadcast on the watch-tap one button, and the story's saved for leisurely reading on your tablet or desktop.
Most publishers won't be able to adopt Circa's model of a content-management system and an editorial staff tuned for wearable devices. For them, doubling down on Twitter may be their best strategy. Twitter's character constraint makes it ideal for wearable devices-as long as the company doesn't break the purity of its product by trying to turn itself into Facebook and saturating its stream with photos and videos that won't play on your wrist.
Some will gripe that the pithiness of wearable media will cheapen our culture. I don't think that has to happen. Instead, by pulling news alerts and other short snippets of information out of our pocket and onto our wrist, wearable platforms for news may turn our larger screens into more contemplative environments. If we're not endlessly scrolling through TweetDeck on our desktop, we'll have more time to read the stories behind the headlines we glanced at earlier in the day. In the end, tiny screens on our wrists, tied to the cloud, means more time and space for learning about the world around us-and that's good for everyone.