A couple of years ago, we got a new 1 car. Being a gadget nerd, I was very keen to make sure that it had a bluetooth stereo that could connect to my phone (although not quite clever enough to make sure that it would play music from my phone – not just connect to make hands-free calls.)

But even as a gadget nerd, I thought that the "keyless" feature – where you only have to have the key with you, then press a button to unlock the doors/turn a knob to start the engine – was pointless. How lazy would you have to be to not be bothered to get a key out of your pocket? And isn't it just asking for trouble – when your key runs out of battery and leaves you unable to get into or start your car? Or if it gets wet or something and the electronics break?

I was so wrong – because I was looking at it from the perspective of someone completely used to the way that I had worked with my previous cars. I had never even thought about situations like;

  • Carrying a load of bags to the car from the supermarket and wanting to open the boot,
  • The car knowing if my wife's keys were inside when I try to lock the door,
  • Having a baby in my arms who is fighting tooth and nail to get out of my arms, while preparing myself to wrestle her into her car seat,
  • Coming back from a service station with a cup of coffee in one hand and some food in the other,

…and probably plenty of other situations where I have breathed a quiet sigh of relief that I just have to press a button – or even ask my 5 year old to press the button – to lock or unlock the car.

This is the experience that I keep coming back to when I'm thinking about things like NFC payments and "smart watches". Sure, I don't need contactless payments as a feature on the cards in my wallet – but when I need to make a payment quickly when I've got my hands full (which is much more likely to happen if you have small children than if you don't) then the speed of contactless is a definite plus. And although its easy to mock Apple's video of "how payments work today" as a woman fumbles with the stack of cards in her wallet, it is without a doubt far easier to take out a phone from your pocket and present it to a payment terminal with one hand than it is to take out your wallet, remove a credit card and put it back in again.

As for online payments and the "verified by VISA" system that makes me have to enter my card details repeatedly, try to remember which unique, ultra-secure password is attached to which card – I get a sinking feeling every time the logo pops up on my screen.

Sure, I can get by quite happily taking my phone out of my pocket when it buzzes to tell me there is something I have already said I want to be alerted to. But for those occasions where I'm in a meeting at work, or having a conversation with someone, I would much rather be able to glance at my wrist to see whether I need to even think about it right now, or if I can happily ignore it for the next hour or so.

I think the way to think about systems that promise to add a level of ostensibly pointless 'convenience', the question to ask isn't "do I need this feature"? Its "if I had this feature already, would I choose to switch to what I'm currently doing"?

For example, if I was using QR codes, I think I would quite happily switch to typing in a short URL. If I was paying for everything with my phone (one-handed), I can't imagine switching to a world where I have a collection of cards in my wallet.

For all the talk about retailer security, data protection and so on (which is important in making the system available - not whether people will use it), I think thats the issue that is going to determine whether systems like Apple Pay will succeed or fail. And while the Apple Watch is being pitched as a fashion item rather than a functional phone accessory (which similarly is important in making the convenience available), I think thats the issue that is going to determine whether those early adopters find it to be something that offers genuinely useful functionality, rather than simply being a 21st century take on finely engineered jewellery.

  1. By "new", I mean "used".