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What an Apple Watch is good for

Rather than speculate on whether Apple is making a watch, when they might unveil such a product, and how much it would sell for, I’m going to take a few minutes to talk about how such a device would fit into the ecosystem of products and why you’ll want one.

It wasn’t so long ago that most people wore watches and used them to tell time. Long after the majority of adults carried early-generation cellphones or pagers that kept more accurate time than fobs on wrists, we still wore them because digging out (or unholstering) a phone just to check the time was a chore.

As phones shrank into our pockets this slowly changed, but it wasn’t until we started seeing cellphones and pagers as small multi-function devices that we started leaving our watches on the nightstand. By 2008, nearly two-thirds of teens never wore watches, and only one in ten wore a watch daily.

The watch’s core function of timekeeping was easily taken up by mobile phones, and they quickly took on – and improved upon – secondary watch tasks like alarms, timers, calculators and calendars. Cases and leashes even let phones take on some of the fashion duties previously shouldered by the wristwatch. Watch sales are less than half what they were a decade ago and many watch manufacturers have pivoted to sports, driving sales of GPS watches, heart-rate monitors, and ruggedized waterproof timepieces to maintain relevance via unique functionality.

In a time when so many people have reached the point of attention saturation, dividing their moments between smartphones, tablets, laptops and televisions, there seems little justification for a ‘fifth screen’ that provides no new capability while depriving us of a chance to glimpse our online life while checking the time.

Watches have become anachronisms.

Most people would probably be surprised to discover how many times they pull out their phones on an average day. (There should be a pedometer-style app just to count phone unlocks. Oh wait, there is.) Yet for all the power at our fingertips, most times we pull the phone out of our collective pocket it’s in response to an alert or to check a small piece of information. And it’s this kind of interaction that may give the watch a way to get back in to the game.

Let’s start with the simple stuff a watch could provide if it were linked via Bluetooth to the phone in your pocket, purse or bag: Of course there’s telling time. There’s also controlling your music. There’s finding out why your phone (or wrist) just buzzed or, if you’re one of those afflicted by phantom buzzing, whether it buzzed. Want to read the text that just came in? A 320x240 1.7" screen has exactly half the pixels of the original iPhone. Plenty of room to display meaningful data. Want to see who’s calling before you decide whether it’s worth digging out your phone? Easy.

But let’s go a little deeper and find the balance between a simple notification device and a full ‘wrist smartphone’. First, battery life is critical. Bluetooth 4.0 support was introduced with the iPhone 4S and allows ‘always listening’ peripherals to use extremely small amounts of power. By now most of the iOS devices in use support Bluetooth 4, and nearly every new Apple phone, iPad or iPod Touch supports it. Even the new iPod nano supports Bluetooth 4. Only the discounted iPhone 4 lacks Bluetooth 4 support, and that model will almost certainly be discontinued this Summer.

A Bluetooth watch slaved to a phone (like the Pebble) gets to leverage the power of its master, but third-party watches can only integrate as deeply as the OS will let them, and as broadly as third-party developers specifically include support. An Apple watch would not only enjoy deep OS and service-level integration and APIs, but would also bring to bear Apple’s decade of experience making smaller and more powerful personal electronic devices. Most people are loath to wear a chunky watch, and Apple would never sell one. Like the iPad, in the works in one way or another for over a decade at Apple, an iWatch would never be productized until it reached a form factor that wasn’t a compromise.

So let’s assume a 1.7" 320x240 screen (vertical, because a landscape watch screams ‘computer-strapped-to-wrist’). Let’s also assume Apple tries to make a design statement with a curved display, lowering the profile of the watch to half that of an iPod nano on an accessory wrist strap. We may need to use an OLED display instead of LCD both because of improvements in power consumption and contrast ratio on a small bright screen and because of the difficulties in getting LCD backlighting to illuminate evenly across such a pronouncedly curved surface. Earlier today Tim Cook disparaged OLED’s color fidelity, but Apple has a long track record of dismissing technologies or form factors right up to the moment they unveil their own version, where they overcame the limitation and “got it right.”

The iPod nano (6th generation) had a square 240x240 1.4" display at 220ppi. A 240x320 1.7" watch would have a third more pixels and, at 235ppi, it would have a higher resolution than a MacBook Pro Retina display. More importantly, the nano proved that multitouch gestures are useful even on a 1.4" display. You wouldn’t hammer out texts on it, but as the primary input interface (secondary actually, but we’ll get there) it would be completely suitable for the general navigation and control gestures needed for wrist-top apps.

Let’s take a quick tour through some of the basic built-in apps and consider what value a wrist experience would bring:

  • Messages - Being able to see new messages as they come in without having to pull out a phone? Simple and useful.
  • Calendar - See upcoming appointments, even navigate the month calendar with a bottom swipe-picker to find free time in the future.
  • Photos - Browsing albums. Probably no camera. (Dick Tracy will be crushed.)
  • Maps - Current location on a pinch-zoomable mini-map. Walking directions. Automatic “where did I leave my car' feature, based on the last time the phone connected to your car’s bluetooth. Throw in a compass and accelerometer and you have a powerful live scrolling map on your wrist. This is actually pretty killer.
  • Weather - At a glance. Weather has always felt like it was designed for the small screen.
  • Stocks - See weather. Charts, scrolling portfolio list. Done.
  • Reminders - Shopping and to-do lists are particularly useful on the wrist when your hands are busy, and geofencing makes it even better.
  • Clock - Well, yeah. With timers, alarms, and stopwatches of course.
  • Passbook - This is where it starts to get really interesting. Passbook’s utility is growing now that you can use it in place of tickets at many movie theaters, instead of your wallet at Starbucks and instead of your boarding passes on many airlines. This would be even easier (and yes, cooler) if you just had to flash your wrist at the reader instead of fishing out your phone.

Consider that any iOS app developer could quickly add a second, basic interface to their app, one that would run on the watch. Pandora would have a station selector and standard play/pause buttons. Facebook and Twitter would do well at formatting their micro-content to a micro-screen.

With an accelerometer and deep integration with the phone, an iWatch would easily be a replacement for the recent spate of wrist-based fitness trackers. Fitbits, Jawbones UP and Nike Fuel bands would become redundant when Apple releases its own fitness app, and/or incorporates a ‘fitness API’ into the OS for third-parties to leverage.

While the iWatch would be a fantastic ‘lightweight consumption’ device, a small touchscreen doesn’t lend itself well to composition tasks. Sure, playing and pausing music is fine, but replying to a text? No way. But this apparent deficiency would actually be the iWatch’s masterstroke.

Siri.

The watch would have only one button, on the side. A single press brings the watch to the home screen. Two presses puts it to sleep. Holding the button down for a moment brings up Siri, just as it does on your iPhone. A microphone in the watch accepts your commands and the audio is sent to the phone for processing (and from there to the cloud, if onboard processing hasn’t yet made it to iOS).

Now an iWatch is a fully functional texting client. Voice commands become the fastest (but not the only) way to pull up most pieces of information or to execute most commands. Initiate a phone call. Create calendar entries, find locations in Maps, check the weather or stocks, add reminders. Do the quick single-action tasks that fill your day without having to mode switch from the real world into ‘iOS land’ just to add an item to a shopping list.

Since the watch would probably have a speaker as well as a microphone you could use it for phone calls in a pinch, though you’d probably still pull the phone out for that, or use a Bluetooth or corded headset.

The watch itself would need little to no memory of its own. It would be a thin client tied to the iOS device. If your phone runs out of juice the watch would still have a minimal amount of utility, but not much. Think alarms, but no calendar access. If you leave your phone behind somewhere though, you can bet your watch will let you know when it falls out of Bluetooth range.

Without the heavy-lifting that an iPod nano contends with an iWatch should be able to last several days between charges, and should be able to get a day’s worth of charge in the time it takes to shower. I’d be surprised if it didn’t have a Lightning connector.

It’s possible that such a phone could have more standalone functionality, with a mini-runtime for calendar and other apps, but that starts to fuzz the line between a secondary input and display peripheral and another device with its own codebase, which could be a much bigger hassle for developers and cause more user confusion.

Strategically, an iWatch makes a lot of sense. It’s a (ahem) peripheral strategy. Unlike the latest generation of iPhone, it can fail without spelling disaster. It doesn’t cannibalize sales of other Apple products. The idea of watches is a proven one, and by overcoming (and actually being supported by) the reasons that watches fell of favor over the last 20 years, there’s a good chance that we’ll see their return.

Apple can easily make this a proprietary play. The OS-level integration means nobody else can play at their level on the iOS platform. An Android initiative would be challenged by the slow adoption rate of new Android OS releases and hardware fragmentation, in addition to possible turf wars between Android device vendors.

Like iTunes, an iWatch can also be a differentiator, driving new user adoption in iOS. All else being equal, they may go to the platform with the integrated watch. For the hundreds of millions of current iOS users, the watch is an opportunity to get more out of their current device at a marginal cost.

Above all, done right, an iWatch could be a play in the classic style of both Apple and Google: An attempt to dramatically redefine a market that had grown stagnant through lack of innovation.

So, when will we see it? If I had to guess I’d say we’d see an official announcement by this Spring’s WWDC at the latest. If you want developers to augment their apps to support a wrist-top experience, you’d have to sell the vision at WWDC, if not before.

And if I guess correctly, this year’s WWDC is going to be largely about Siri. It’s been a year and a half of incremental changes, and given Google’s performance lead in on-board voice recognition I have to think Apple is burning the midnight oil to match that capability while also creating a cogent strategy to extend Siri’s capability to third party apps.

Oh, and that front-facing camera I said wouldn’t be there? Maybe next year. You’ve gotta have a reason to upgrade, after all.

 
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