Would Apple’s Smart Watch Be a Smart Idea?
Posted on October 17th, 2012
First, let me be clear, Apple will probably not build a watch. One of the great things about Apple is their ability to focus. Almost every feature or product they make needs to have a real usefulness for everyday consumers. That is why their products sometimes appear simple or behind the curve. If they don’t think mainstream consumers will find a use for their offering it will be unceremoniously purged from their lineup. However, they do offer more products than everyone needs. You don’t need a Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPod nano, Apple TV, and their various optional accessories. What you do need is the perfect selection of the tools they offer to meet your lifestyle. The upside is that almost anyone can find a configuration within the Apple ecosystem that will work for them. For Apple to make a smart watch (or whatever they may call it) the hardware and software teams would need to make a really compelling argument for such a device. Like many of there products it may seem simple and obvious to those who daydream about new technologies but as I’ve discovered through many hours of thought, pulling off this product in a way that would be successful with mainstream consumers would be difficult. Here is how I think they could do it.
The design and function of the hardware
The last generation iPod Nano was so nearly a perfect analog to a watch form factor that the reaction was immediate from the tech community. My goal in creating this concept was to make a few subtle changes following Apples current generation design language while also creating something I would love to own. There were some great new details Ive’s team added to this year’s lineup. Where many saw a gimmick with the new loop I found inspiration. That simple little pop up connection point is pure and simple Apple design genius. Add in some gorgeous chamfered edges and I think we are close to where they would have gone. The great thing is by using the push button connector almost any accessory from a clip to an arm band can be used while adding the minimum of bulk. My problem with the last generation watch bands was the size. If you had a large wrist it wasn’t bad but they added so much bulk because of the clip that wasn’t removable. The band I have designed here is something I would like to see more so then what I think Apple would design. More then likely, if they offered one, it would be rubber instead of leather. Also the clasp has not been well thought out and this was more due to time constraints then anything else. I would like to see something that attaches and removes quicker then most clasps. Another change I have made was to move the power button. I designed it so that you could use a pinching motion to press it without blocking the screen. I would also like to see an option for just tapping the screen to wake it up. Overall the goal was to create something that could really be dressed up in many ways by accessory makers. There would be a cottage industry that would pop up to create bands, custom watch faces and workout accessories almost overnight. Technical aspects include a switch to the lightning port saving room now needed for the connector. Thick gorilla glass or even sapphire would need to be used by the screen because of the increased potential for damage due to being worn on the wrist. Most importantly the battery would need to last. I think a week on a charge is ideal for light use. I believe this would be possible with the right software. Having running apps would kill battery life, but this doesn’t need true apps. It will basically be a much more advanced implementation of push notifications. If an app registers with the device it’s icon will be placed on the screen. It can then push text, graphics and buttons to the screen. All the processing is done on the phone. If you click an icon or swipe to a view some info the system will send a request to the phone for that info. I imagine these things being just another API option from Apple.
What’s the Point
Wearable electronics have been seeing a surge of renewed popularity among gadget enthusiasts. Once again we hope that new tech can bring us this dream. The hope is that we can break down the barriers that artificially separate our thoughts from the power of computers. I think of it much like a prosthetic for our unrealized brain power. In a way, modern smartphones operate in this fashion. Though we must still interact with them as a separate object, they augment our knowledge of the world in new ways almost daily (if you look). With upcoming tech like NFC and low power bluetooth 4.0 we will be even more connected to the world around us. Our devices will replace our wallets and keys within the decade and that isn’t even the half of it. The unexpected advances will answer questions we haven’t even thought of yet. But the separation between thought and action is still too great, with too many steps and menus to sort through. As sad as it sounds, reaching into our pocket or purse is too big a hassle sometimes. We are constantly looking for shortcuts for any amount of work. The Lockitron comes to mind. My thought on it is: if I have to reach for my phone open an app and press a button then I don’t see the utility of a connected lock. I want my device to know exactly what I need and present me with the simplest option. Walk up to the door and tap my wrist, door opens. Safer then a completely automatic option with almost no fumbling. For another example, imagine that I walk up to a checkout counter and the cashier asks how I’m doing and tells me my total. Meanwhile, the register links with my phone though NFC or bluetooth and registers with my card holder. At this point she could ask me to sign and be done with it but that doesn’t solve the problem of security very effectively. Typing in a password on my device would work but that is a hassle and doesn’t save any steps. A better option would be to link my phone and watch through a secure connection and have it present an accept button once my transaction has been verified. This presents a security layer without adding additional cumbersome steps. And it also means I can make the password for my phone more complicated then I otherwise would. In effect my watch is acting as an authentication device for my phone. Setting aside the chit-chat, my only action was lifting my wrist and tapping the screen. Less steps more security. A device like this could be the ultimate widget. In the time it takes to look at your watch you could see the weather, that new email, or anything an app developer thinks may interest you. If you want to act on it unlock your phone and it will be in sync with the current screen on the watch. I imagine apps wouldn’t be written for this device, rather it would be an additional option while developing iPhone apps, presenting a simple look at information that you need quickly. Add in simple interaction when necessary and I don’t think I would ever ask for widgets on my phone. There are many interesting possibilities beyond the obvious, weather, phone, mail and clock. Let’s go through a few.
These are a couple of quick examples that should get you thinking. This would not be a device you keep in sync with all your iDevices in the vein of iCloud. Rather it would act like companion to your phone and would be quite limited without it. Preferably, all of the non-iPod functionality that is tied to your phone would disappear once the link was broken. This means one could share a device and there would be no setup time involved. Your wife could borrow it for a run and put it in her waterproof band and you would never know the difference.
Would it Sell?
I mentioned Apple’s focus at the beginning and one aspect of that is their desire to make best selling products. However, very rarely, they offer products in a extremely niche market. I believe each of these products has a very specific reason for existing and it all relates back to attracting the masses. On the Mac side they still offer the Mac Pro. I use last years model in my day job and it is a beast in every sense. Huge, powerful, utilitarian. Cook has said it will get a major update next year which means they still see the need for it. I don’t think anyone believes they make a substantial percent of the profits in this market. It does however accomplish a few goals. It keeps up the image of Apple being the creative professional’s tool maker of choice. This makes every wannabe designer out there crave a Mac. It also serves as their halo product for the Mac lineup. This induces upgrades from their lower powered machines. Of course the obvious product is the Apple TV. They still call this a hobby despite finally selling millions. I wouldn’t surprise anyone by guessing this is the testbed for a real breakthrough product in the living room. But for right now it offers something Apple loves. A perfectly controlled ecosystem. I do most of my TV watching through the device. With AirPlay, throwing the content to the TV to share with my wife and others works so well it has become second nature. The more benefits Apple can give it’s users for staying within their ecosystem the better their future position. If they ever decided to offer a smart watch I believe this would be why.
Most iPhone users don’t have a reason to buy a Nano. I got one for dirt cheap to tinker with and my wife uses it while running from time to time, but I don’t really have a reason to use it. That being said most people still don’t have iPhones or iPod Touches and the Nano offers a great cheap option to enter the ecosystem. If they can cheaply and easily offer a product that gives all their customers a compelling reason to spend $100-$150 on another device then they will make it. In fact the more I type I feel there may be a better case for this device then the current Apple TV. Granted not everyone will want to wear a bulky watch (even one as slimmed down as I have made here) but enough will try it if the utility is there. Remember if app developers add in the functionality people may just want to use it. And Apple has a history of getting developers to adopt new functionality quickly.
What it Means for the Marketplace
We have seen some interesting stuff in this place recently. The Pebble watch being the best example. Sony has their option, and Motorola has theirs. I won’t count the S Pebble from Samsung. But none of these options has the killer app that Apple will offer. Deep iOS integration. That means thousands of developers can quickly add functionality even if they don’t expect many users. Just like we saw with push notifications, multitasking and many others. Apple developers use the APIs that are given to them. Contrast that with the Pebble that will have an API all it’s own that developers must use to sync with their apps. Unless the Pebble (which I really want) becomes successful I don’t see too many developers scrambling to support it. It would be interesting to see what if any options would be available for Android. It really seems like this kind of device needs to have hardware integration and top level control from the manufacturer and OS maker to really take off and Android isn’t there yet. Hopefully Google makes some good moves with their Motorola purchase and we start to see some real competition on the hardware side.
Smarter Not Harder
We are heading to an ever more connected future. Soon all the functions of our house will be as easy to use as our cars have been for years. Auto locks, auto climate control that knows our habits, voice automation et al. With some advancement wireless power may become a useable reality. Wireless communication between our devices will continue to make everything we do easier. This is not laziness, what it does is allow us to use our newly freed up time to make our world a much happier environment. Some may brush of my complaining about reaching in my pocket for my phone but they also said that about remote locks, cell phones and many other things. You would think with all of the automation we have developed in the last century that we would all be sitting around with nothing to do. But each advancement allows us to focus on new problem. I believe and hope in my lifetime I will see technology become a much more transparent thing that makes my life more enjoyable without the need for constant interaction with it. That would be the ultimate user interface.