iwatch

iWatch Thoughts

 

Unlike the almost forgotten Apple TV set, there might be a real product in the iWatch. But as rumors about the device intensify, the scuttlebutt conveniently skirts key questions about the product’s role.

As reverberations of Apple’s Developer Conference begin to die down, the ever-dependable iWatch has offered itself as the focus of another salvo of rumors and speculation. Actually, there’s just one rumor — a Reuters “report” that Quanta Computer will begin manufacturing the iWatch in July — but it was enough to launch a quick-fire series of echoes that bounced around the blogosphere. Not to be outdone, the Wall Street Journal added its own tidbits:

“Apple is planning multiple versions of a smartwatch…[that] will include more than 10 sensors to track and monitor health and fitness data, these people said.”

(“These people” are, of course, the all-knowing “people familiar with the matter”.)

The iWatch hubbub could be nothing more than a sort of seasonal virus, but this time there’s a difference.

At the WWDC three weeks ago, Apple previewed HealthKit, a toolkit iOS developers can use to build health and fitness related applications. HealthKit is a component of the iOS 8 release that Apple plans to ship this fall in conjunction with the newest iDevices. As an example of what developers will be able to do with HealthKit, Apple previewed Health, an application that gives you “an easy-to-read dashboard of your health and fitness data.”

The rumor that Quanta will soon begin “mass production” of the iWatch — the perfect vehicle for health-and-fitness apps — just became a bit more tantalizing… but there are still a number of questions that are left unanswered.

Foremost is iWatch “independence”. How useful will it be when it’s running on its own, unconnected to a smartphone, tablet, or conventional PC? My own guess: Not very useful. Unless Apple plans to build a monstrosity of a device (not likely), the form factor of our putative iWatch will dictate a small battery, which means the processor will have to be power-conserving and thus unable to run iPhone-caliber apps. Power conservation is particularly important if Apple wants to avoid jibes of the ‘My iWatch ran out of battery at the end of the day’ type. Such occurrences, already annoying with a smartphone, could be bad publicity for a “health and fitness” watch.

So, let’s settle for a “mostly dependent” device that relies on a more robust sibling for storage, analysis, and broad overview.

That raises another question: Will the iWatch be part of Apple’s ecosystem only, or will it play nice with Windows PCs or even Android smartphones? If we take Apple’s continued tolerance of the Android version of Beats Music (at least so far) as an example, the notion of an Apple device communicating with a member of the Android tribe is less heretical than it once was. Again, my own guess: Initially, the iWatch will be of restricted to the Apple ecosystem. We’ll see what happens if the device catches on and there’s a demand for an “non-denominational” connection.

As for what role the iWatch will play in the ecosystem, those of us ancient enough might recall the example set by the Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) that Microsoft launched a decade ago. No need to repeat that bit of doomed history by targeting too many platforms, by trying to make “Smart Objects” omniscient. Instead, Apple is likely, as it insisted at its early June WWDC, to tout its Continuity ethos: Let each device do what it does best, but don’t impede the flow of information and activities between devices. In plainer English: Hybrid devices are inferior.

So, besides telling time (perhaps in Yosemite’s new system font, a derivative of Helvetica Neue) what exactly will the iWatch do? The first part of the answer is easy: It will use its sensors to collect data of interest. We’ve already seen what the M7 motion processor and related apps can do in an iPhone 5S; now imagine data that has much finer granularity, and sensors that can measure additional dimensions, such as altitude.

Things quickly get more complicated when we turn to the “other side of the skin”. Heart rhythm and blood pressure measurements look banal, but they shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially if one wants medically reliable data. Oxymetry, the measurement of your oxygen saturation, looks simple — you just slide a cap onto your fingertip — but that cap is actually transmitting lightwaves through your finger. A smartwatch can’t help the nearly 18 million US citizens who suffer from Type II Diabetes (a.k.a Adult Onset Diabetes)  because there are no non-invasive methods for measuring blood sugar. And even as the technical complications of collecting health data are surmounted, device makers can find themselves skirting privacy issues and infringing the HIPAA charter.

The iWatch will also act as a receiver of data from a smartphone, tablet, or PC. This poses many fewer problems, both technical and ethical, than health monitoring, but it also offers few opportunities. Message notifications and calendar alerts are nice but they don’t create a new category, and they certainly haven’t “moved the needle” for existing smartwatches. In a related vein, one can imagine bringing the iWatch close to one’s face and speaking to Siri, asking to set up a calendar event, or sending a text message… but, as with the trend towards larger smartphone screens, one must exercise care when fantasizing about iWatch use cases.

Then we have the question of developers and applications — where’s the support for iWatch app creators? When the iOS App Store opened in 2008, the iPhone became an app phone and solidified the now universal genre. What iWatch rumors fail to address is the presence or absence of an iWatch SDK, of iWatch apps, and of a dedicated App Store section.

Meanwhile, Google has already announced its Android Wear platform and has opened a “Developer Preview” program. Conventional wisdom has it that the Google I/O convention next week will focus on wearables. Samsung has been actively fine-tuning and updating the software for its line of Galaxy Gear smart watches (the watches originally ran on an Android derivative but now use Tizen – until next week).

Finally, we have the question of whether an iWatch will sell in numbers that make the endeavor worthwhile. As the previously-mentioned WSJ story underlines, the smartwatch genre has had a difficult start:

“[...] it isn’t clear how much consumers want the devices. Those on the market so far haven’t sold well, because most wearable devices only offer a limited set of features already found on a smartphone.”

The most ambitious rumors project 50 million iWatches sold in the first 12 months. I think that’s an unrealistic estimate, but if a $300 iWatch can sell at these numbers, that’s $15B for the year. This seems like a huge number until you compare it to a conservative estimate for the iPhone:  50 million iPhones at $650 generates $32B per quarter.

Taking a more hopeful view, let’s recall the history of the iPad. It was a late entrant in the tablet field but it coalesced and redefined the genre. Perhaps the the iWatch will establish itself as The Smartwatch Done Right. But even if it succeeds in this category-defining role, it won’t have the power and flexibility or the huge number of apps of a true trouser pocket computer. As a result, the iWatch will be part of the supporting cast, not a first order product like the iPhone. There’s nothing wrong with that — it might help make high-margin iPhones even more attractive — but it won’t sell in numbers, dollar volume, or profit comparable to the iPhone or iPad. The iWatch, if and when announced, might be The Next Big Thing – for the few weeks of a gargantuan media feast. But it won’t redefine an industry the way PCs, smartphones and tablets did.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

More iWatch Fun

 

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.

JLG@mondaynote.com