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Apple iWatch could be useful or completely impractical

Updated: February 12, 2013 2:59PM



Last week, Gizmodo ran a story laying out the history of the Beats By Dr. Dre line of headphones. It’s worth reading. When I finished it, I thought about all of the times I’ve seen people wearing those signature cans on the street and on the subway.

I was left wondering if, maybe, senior Apple executives see a missed opportunity every time they see a set of Beats headphones on the street. A key to Apple’s success is a lean product line, and they were wise to abandon peripherals and focus on products with screens and CPUs. But in a way, it’s the perfect Apple product. It’s a direct interface to the human senses. It’s a product that puts industrial design front-and-center. It would put the Apple logo on trains, buses, and sidewalks. The markups are ungodly.

And headphones are, emphatically, a consumer product. Apple, you’ll recall, dropped the word “Computer” from their company name over six years ago. They define themselves as a consumer electronics company and at this point, only old-timers who remember borrowing Mom or Dad’s hole-punch to turn a single-sided, double-density floppy into a double-sided one for extra storage continue to think otherwise.

That’s why I’m predisposed to think favorably about recent rumors — bolstered by mostly speculative stories in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal — that Apple’s working on a wristwatch. In fact, a watch is such a natural idea for the consumer-focused company that I wrote about it in 2011. A wristwatch ticks off a lot of checkboxes that the Apple-branded television set (last year’s white-hot rumor) doesn’t.

Apple products succeed in part because they create an emotional connection to the consumer; if the spirit of an adorable sneezing baby panda were reborn as an electronic product, then that gadget would have an Apple logo on it. What’s more intimate than a wristwatch? You don’t carry it. You wear it directly on your skin and you can gaze upon its bright, shiny face at the slightest impulse.

A watch doesn’t impose the same kinds of design limitations as a phone or a computer, either. The design on those items can go only so far before engineers encounter an electrified fence, beyond which design interferes with function. Apple’s certainly been willing to singe their hands on that fence (witness the MacBook Pro, the $2,300 notebook with no high-speed network port) but they aren’t willing to lose a limb.

A watch is inherently a stylish item. It needs to be slim enough that it can fit underneath a buttoned shirt cuff but other than that? All bets are off.

Popular speculation about the design of this rumored watch has mentioned all kinds of new technologies for producing curved glass. The display industry has been doggedly developing curved color screens...Samsung showed off some interesting and functional samples at the Consumer Electronics Show last month, too. That’s obviously a good match to an electronic device that wraps around a wrist.

I’m not completely sold on a curved watch screen, though. Flat glass panels, however mundane they might seem, have a killer feature: They’re only affected by glare from a single angle. Shift your wrist slightly and the mirrored image of a nearby lamp or window goes away. A curved screen would always have at least one band of unreadable real estate, I reckon.

The coolness would come from more mundane things like an alloy or an assembly process: shapes and forms that couldn’t have been mass produced just five years ago. There is no design wonk like an Apple design wonk. You or I might be mesmerized by the enigmatic angular profile of Sargent’s Madame X; Apple’s designers get so moon-eyed over the properties of zirconium-titanium alloys that they sometimes forget their own home addresses and need to be led back to HR and have a card pinned to their sleeves.

Rumors are naturally centering on all of the features that Apple could put into a smartwatch. Who’s phoning you right now? Check caller ID and reject the call in two seconds, without taking your iPhone out of your pocket. Plenty of watches can do that today.

Apple has two technologies, however, that could bring a smartwatch into new territory.

Don’t undersell Apple’s app notification system just because it appears to have been ripped off from Android and Growl. The pull-down mechanism and pop-up/fadeaway behavior are surface manifestations of a powerful infrastructure that Apple’s been shipping and improving for six years. It allows apps to push alerts and notifications wherever they need to go, even across the Internet, and to arrive at their destination whether the target device is fully awake or not. Every iOS and MacOS device already has a sophisticated switchboard for managing notifications from dozens of sources. An Apple smartwatch could simply be a new destination for those centralized alerts. Would developers even need to modify their apps to target the watch specifically? Maybe not; out of the box, an Apple watch could be a busy extension of your phone and desktop.

Secondly, there’s Siri. After you’re done asking Siri where to bury a body and if these shoes make our butts look big and having a good laugh over it, think of Siri in the abstract: it’s a user interface that works with the bare minimum of input and output hardware. All Siri needs (beyond a microphone) is one button to activate the feature and screen size is almost irrelevant. Even if Siri didn’t speak back, all of your Siri interactions lead to either a one-line response or a spartan little card of information...beautiful reductions of data that fit marvelously into a watch-size screen.

The Android OS has its own voice-enabled search assistant. It’s great stuff, but it skips over something subtle. Siri wastes absolutely none of your attention. Ask Siri about the weather and it gives you the temperature and tells you if you need an umbrella today. It responds to even complex queries with a single, short sentence. Even when you ask it to do something complicated, like schedule an appointment with people from your address book, its sole response is to ask if it’s interpreted your request correctly.

It’s not just the perfect interface for a device with a wristwatch-sized screen...it’s the perfect attitude. Wristwatches aren’t immersive devices. They’re cursory ones based on action-response. What time is it? Done. Who wants to keep their wrist raised long enough to do something tricky? Particularly when they almost certainly have a phone that can do a much better job without causing quite so much lactic acid buildup.

Finally, any great Apple product makes all of Apple’s other products more useful and valuable. An Apple smartwatch can receive notifications from phones, tablets, and desktops, it can control media devices...it can even hook into Apple’s Passbook payment system. Flash your watch at a scanner, get coffee. Simple.

Let’s not move on without speaking of “lock in.” If it makes your iPhone more useful then the watch will make the iPhone more valuable. That’s a big win for Apple in a world where the iPhone is just a top-tier smartphone among many.

Good, good, good.

I still can’t help but be skeptical. I see a lot of barriers to an Apple smartwatch:

1) Could a watch have the sort of features that I’m describing and still be a watch?

It’s fun to lean back and stroke my beard and speak of Siri and Notification Center. But those are technologies that run on OS X, the basis of Mac OS X and iOS. OS X runs on a “real” CPU, and real CPUs require real power.

Even without those technologies, a smartwatch needs to communicate with the phone in your pocket. Radios also suck down power. The display of a mobile device is traditionally a huge consumer of electricity, but that’s not a major worry; an Apple smartwatch would use a tiny screen incorporating ultra-low-power display technology, and Apple has demonstrated a great deal of skill at power management.

Nonetheless: Unless this watch was the size of a juice box and packed with cells, you would expect it to run for about a week on battery, tops. I tried wearing my sixth-generation iPod Nano as a watch last year and I gave up after a few weeks. My Geek force was strong, but when the novelty wore off I realized that I had added an unnecessary element of new stress to the problem of knowing what time it is.

Power consumption is a large enough problem that it raises the stakes on an Apple smartwatch. Apple would need to put together a set of features that are so simple and compelling, and which work so well, that consumers are willing to deal with the hassle of charging.

(But here’s a good place to underscore the reasons why Apple replaced the old 30-pin iPod charging/syncing cable with the new ultraslim Lightning connector. It allows Apple to build smart devices of almost any size or thickness.)

2) Is Apple really willing to train the world to want this kind of device?

A smartwatch that controls and communicates with other devices seems like a great gadget to me. But I’m not in any way the kind of mainstream consumer that Apple covets. How many consumers still wear watches? How many consider it a social faux pas to unpocket a phone to see who’s calling?

I see the same scene in every restaurant: phones on the table. I dunno if these people’s lives would be simplified by moving the notification from the table to the wrist. Particularly when an important notification would then require you to pick up your phone anyway.

And the people who don’t say hello, sit down, and then set their phones down next to their salad forks don’t feel as though they need to react to an incoming call or email within moments. All other functions are easily handled by the phone they already own.

I’m just not sensing the proverbial Pain Point in any existing process that a smartwatch will solve. Again I refer you to the the lack of a high-speed network port on Apple’s high-end laptop. This is a company that focuses on consumers, not power users. A power user will be thrilled to get information without having to remove a phone from a shirt pocket. A consumer won’t even get that far into the watch demo. “It’s square? I hate square watches. And it’s a $149 watch that dies after a week? Wow.”

But: if any company can create a useful consumer context for a smartwatch, it’s Apple. iPad became a success because Apple made no attempt to deliver the power of a desktop computer in a slim tablet. It worked because Apple expressed the most important core functions of a computer in a way that makes sense for a simple consumer device.

3) Style is a major issue. A watch that’s big on a man’s wrist is usually crazy-stupid-huge on a woman’s. Can Apple make a watch that works for both sexes?

Can they even make a watch that doesn’t call attention to itself?

When you see iPhones in the field, they’re almost always customized with cases. Can Apple come up with a design that will appeal to the idiosyncratic fashion whims of tens of millions of consumers?

4) A smartwatch seems like exactly the sort of product that Apple could royally screw up.

Spiritually, Apple doesn’t like things to be open and they don’t like to cede control of their products to the community of people who use them. Apple would need to aggressively curate all of the watch’s functions on their own. It’d be a useful watch even if all it did was hook into iOS and MacOS notifications, but that’s just one function. And again, Apple will be asking consumers to spend a lot of money on a watch that they don’t know they need that runs only a week on battery. It needs killer apps.

I also wonder if Apple could make a smartwatch that worked intimately with all of their other products. An iPad, iPhone, and a Mac can swap data fluidly. But they always appear to be three computers sharing a network, as opposed to a shared, single experience. It’s easy to imagine Apple making a watch that tells me “You need to go back to your iMac now because of this event that’s just happened.” The huge win of an Apple smartwatch would be the watch telling my iMac “Andy has just gone from a sitting to a standing position and he appears to be walking. If you’re asleep, you should wake up and refresh his Inbox because I think he’s heading for the downstairs office.”

2000 words later, what do I think about these rumors? I think they’re highly speculative. The watch that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal describe would be very expensive, cumbersome, inconvenient to keep running, and wouldn’t deliver any clear feature or solve any kind of problem that plucks the heartstrings of the huddled masses yearning to breathe the ionized air of their nearest Apple Store.

I’m not expecting to see an Apple smartwatch anytime soon.

I still hope that Apple turns their attention to watches.

My instincts on Apple rumors are usually helped by imagining the keynote presentation. Whatever credibility I give to the wristwatch rumor is due to my seeing the following scene so clearly:

“We were all around a conference table at Apple one day last year,” Tim Cook begins, pacing confidently. “Suddenly we noticed that all of us were wearing analog wristwatches. None of us wore digital watches. And why...?”

(Pause...)

“...Because none of us had ever seen a digital watch for sale that we ourselves would want to own and wear every day. So we made one.” And then Tim pulls up his shirt cuff.

I’d love to see Apple do a project like this as a pure design project. Forget making a smartwatch that does everything. Design a watch with only three mandates: tell the time, be wearable, and include some sort of simple yes/no indicator that tells the wearer to check their phone.

Above and beyond those three things, it would only have to be beautiful. The iPhone, the MacBook Air, and other Apple products are genuinely beautiful. They’re informed by a thousand practical variables, however. I want to see what Apple Design comes up with when they can devote less of their energies towards working out how to fit a larger battery that supports a larger display, and more of it towards producing a handsome but functional personal adornment.

I’d also like for this watch to be affordable. There’s an ugly side to the emergence of Apple as an internationally-recognized symbol of cool: it feeds in to the highly acidic Culture of Wanting Stuff. But although Apple is an aspirational brand, their products rarely priced completely out of reach of ordinary consumers. Here in the US, an iPhone costs the same as any other smartphone. The difference is that the Apple product is at the apex of design and construction instead of being made cheaply and thoughtlessly.

A $99 Apple watch — or how about $79? — would deliver top-of-the-list design to folks on a modest budget. When you’re running for your train and you don’t know if you’re going to make it, yes, you’re grateful for that momentary blip of pleasure when you find yourself looking at a beautiful, well-made object. Apple’s well qualified to deliver that kind of experience.



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