When looking at the potential for a really smart watch, the idea of an Apple iWatch looks almost sensible. Still, there is a long way between the attractive idea and stuffing the required computer power in a wristwatch.
As I somberly contemplate the death of personal privacy, our being spied upon everywhere, at all times (for our own good, you understand), a tweet from an ex-coworker known for his stiletto wit evokes a welcome smile:
Frank is referring to Nick Hayek Jr., the cigar-wielding head of Swatch Group AG (and Zino Davidoff doppelgänger):
In a Bloomberg article (from which the above photo is extracted), Hayek dismisses the iWatch rumors:
"Personally, I don't believe it's the next revolution," the chief of the largest Swiss watchmaker said at a press conference on annual results in Grenchen, Switzerland. "Replacing an iPhone with an interactive terminal on your wrist is difficult. You can't have an immense display."
Hayek's pronouncement triggered many sharp reactions, such as this history lesson from another sharp tweeter:
As Kontra (a "veteran design and management surgeon") reminds us, Palm CEO Ed Colligan once famously pooh-poohed the unannounced iPhone
We've learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone, […] PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They're not going to just walk in.
Colligan's brush-off wasn't the first time, or the last, that Apple's "unauthorized intrusions" were decried by industry incumbents and arbiters of business taste:
- The iPod: A doomed foray into the saturated, profitless market of commodity MP3 players.
- iTunes: Single tracks for 99 cents? Not a chance against free online music sites.
- Apple Stores: Another folly, zero experience in the cutthroat and manpower intensive retail business.
- iPhone: The status quotidians scoff.
- Homegrown ARM-based processors: A billion dollar mistake.
- iPad: Ridiculous name. Steve Ballmer derides its lack of keyboard and mouse.
This isn't to deny that the Apple Midas Touch is occasionally fat fingered. Prior to its launch, Steve Jobs touted MobileMe as Exchange For The Rest of Us; afterwards, he told the MobileMe team they should "hate each other for letting each other down". Last year, Tim Cook had no choice but to apologize for the iMaps fiasco (and then showed a couple Apple executives the door).
So how would this hypothetical iWatch play out? Can Apple re-invent a known device à la the iPod, or are they venturing into territory without a map (or, one can't resist, with an iMap)?
First, a brief look at today's watches, smart and not.
After five centuries of improvements to their time keeping mechanisms (or movements), mechanical watches are no longer judged for their temporal accuracy, but for their beauty and, just as important, for the number and ingeniousness of their complications -- what non-horologists would call "additional functions". It's not enough to just tell the time, watches must display the phases of the moon and positions of the planets, function as a chronograph, provide a perpetual calendar... The moniker grande complication is applied to the most advanced, such as this one from the Gallet company (founded in 1466):
These complications come at a price: For $300k you can pick up the double-faced Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon with its 2800-star celestial chart. The Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, which holds the record with 36 complications and 1400 parts, will set you back $2.7M:
These luxury watches function more as engineering marvels than utilitarian timepieces, and, accordingly, they're worn as adornments -- and status symbols.
The more common electronic watch, which uses a precise quartz oscillator and typically has no moving parts, hasn't entirely killed the mechanical watch, but it hasn't been for lack of trying. Electronic watchmakers, aided by the tiny microprocessors embedded in many of these devices, have piled on even more more functions -- calculators, multiple repeating alarms, even circular slide rules...it's simply an exercise in the proverbial mere matter of software.
But each new function introduces UI complexity, as this page from the instruction manual for my Seiko multi-function watch establishes:
Most of the manual's 33 pages are in the same vein. As a result, normal humans find these electronic complications baffling and leave most of the functions unmolested.
And now we have the smartwatch, a true computer that's strapped to your wrist. Today's smartwatch will tell you the time and run some rudimentary applications, but its primary role is to act as an extension of the smartphone that you've paired through Bluetooth. A phone call comes in, your watch shows you the number; an email message arrives, your watch scrolls the sender's address; if the music you're streaming on your phone is too quiet, just tap your watch to turn it up...at least in theory.
These are all good ideas, but, as the NYT's David Pogue found after test driving a sampling of these devices, their execution leaves something to be desired. His conclusion:
...you have to wonder if there's a curse on this blossoming category. Why are these smartwatches so buggy, half-baked and delayed?
The Casio and Martian watches are worth considering. But if you ask the other watches what time it is, they'll tell you: too soon.
So, again, where does the putative iWatch fit into all of this?
Let's start with the UI. If we just regard the traditional chronological functions (date and time formats, alarms, stopwatch) an iPhone-like touch interface, albeit on a smaller screen, would easily eclipse the clunky buttons-along-the perimeter controls on my Seiko. For the more advanced "smart" functions, one assumes that Apple won't be satisfied unless the user experience far exceeds the competition. (Of the five smartwatches that Pogue reviews, only one, the Cukoo, has even a hint of touch screen capability.)
Then there's the matter of overall style. This isn't a fair fight; there's something viscerally compelling about a traditional mechanical watch with exposed movement. Even on the low end of the market you can find a mechanical watch that displays its inner beauty. Nonetheless, we can trust Sir Jony to rise to the challenge, to imagine the kind of style we've come to expect.
There's also the battery question. Will the iWatch suffer from having a two or three days battery life as suggested by "[s]ources close to Apples [sic] project team"? Leaving aside conjectures about the anatomical location whence emerged these sources' information, two thoughts come up...
First, it's a safe assumption that the target audience for the iWatch are iDevice owners that Apple has "trained" (subjugated, critics will say) to charge their devices at night. For them, charging the iWatch, as well, won't be a dealbreaker. The Lightning connector and charger for an iPhone or iPad should be small enough to fit a largish watch. Or perhaps the addition of the iWatch to the iDevice constellation will convince Apple to incorporate wireless charging (despite the diffidence of Phil Schiller, Apple's VP of marketing).
Second, some electronic watches don't need batteries at all. In Seiko's Kinetic line, the kinetic motion of the wearer's hand drives a tiny generator that feeds electricity into a capacitor for storage. (For the inert watch wearer, stem winding works as well. In a clever twist, some of newer models preserve the stored charge by halting the motion of the hands when the watch isn't being worn.) It's unclear whether the energy captured from hand movements will suffice to feed an ambitious Apple smartwatch, but the technology exists.
Turning to more advanced functionality: Will the iWatch be an iOS device? I think it's very likely. That doesn't mean that the iWatch will be an iPhone/iPod Touch, only smaller. Instead, and as we see with today's Apple TV, the iWatch will enrich the iOS ecosystem: Reasonably useful on its own, but most important as a way to increase the value/enjoyment of other iDevices...at least for now.
Eventually, and as I've written here several times, I believe the Apple TV will become a first class citizen, it will have its own versions of apps that were written for the iPhone/iPad, as well as apps that are for TV alone. With iOS as the lingua franca, the iWatch could be treated with the same respect.
There are plenty of examples of apps that would work on a very small screen, either in conjunction with existing data (calendar, address book, stock market, iMessage, weather) or as a remote for other devices, including non-Apple products (the Nest thermostat comes to mind).
We should also consider biometric applications. The intimate contact of the iWatch makes it a natural carrier for the ever-improving sensors we find in today's health monitors, devices that measure and record heart rate and perspiration during a workout, or that monitor sleep patterns and analyze food intake. What we don't find, in these existing gadgets, is the ability to download new apps. An iWatch with health sensors coupled with the App Store would open whole new health and wellness avenues.
Finally, there's (always) the money question. Would our mythical iWatch sell in sufficient volume -- and with a high enough margin -- to make it a significant product line for Apple? Given that watches easily sell for hundreds of dollars, and that we would almost certainly use an Apple iWatch more often and for more purposes than an Apple TV, the volume/margin question isn't too hard to answer.
Back to reality, translating a fantasy into a real product is by no means a sure thing. A pleasant, instantaneous user experience requires computing power. Computing power requires energy; energy means battery drain and heat dissipation. These are challenges for real grown-ups. And sometimes a grown-up has to make the vital No We Won't Do This decision that separates bloated demi-failures from truly elegant genre-creating breakthroughs.