Why would Apple make a watch?


We’re less than a handful of days away from Apple’s September 9th event, and it’d be an understatement to say we’re rather clueless as to what the teams of One Infinite Loop have up their sleeves.

The best way I can think to describe the run up to the event is this: just like the start of 2007. Everyone knew Apple was working on a phone, likely called iPhone, but no one knew anything about it. No one knew quite how much Apple was about to change everything.

Not long after Tim Cook took over as full time CEO, he made a promise: “We’re going to double down on secrecy.” A few years on from that comment, it seems, as with most of Tim’s public comments, that it was more than just empty marketing speak. From the completely redesigned iOS 7 in 2013, to the launch of a whole new programming language, Swift, at this years WWDC, to the announcements that are about to be unveiled, Apple are tighter lipped and appear to be more controlled than ever.

Taking on Switzerland

Just Thursday, “a designer at Apple” (AKA Apple PR) supposedly spoke to The New York Times suggesting that Jony Ive, SVP Design at Apple, has been saying Switzerland are in trouble. If this quote really was planted in the piece by Apple PR, that suggests a level of ambition that far surpasses that of anyone who has already entered the wearable a space.

If one thing is clear, it’s that Apple doesn’t see any of the current smart watches as competition. Apple’s aspirations are far far greater than to just shrink the iPhone and put it on your wrist. Apple wants to produce something so great that millions and millions of people who have never worn a watch will buy it and use it. This isn’t just a better smart watch, this is a better watch.

Purpose — Why make a watch?

Why make a watch? What can you do better on a watch than you can on a phone or a tablet? What can you only do with a watch that would otherwise be impossible in any other form factor? What can you do to make a watch so good that people who have never worn a watch start wearing one?

After weeks of mulling it over, here are some key requirements I believe will dictate the design of Apple’s iWatch.

You’ll always be wearing it

If you feel that you use your iPhone a lot, wait until you have an iWatch on your wrist. Not that you’ll necessarily be using your iWatch all the time, but it’ll constantly be monitoring and tracking everything you’re doing, from your pulse to your steps to your sleeping patterns, and feeding it all to iCloud via your iPhone.

To truly accomplish “quantified self” status, no one wants gaps in their data, and so you’ll want to wear it all the time. To allow you to pay for your coffee at Starbucks without even getting your phone out of your pocket, you’ll have your watch on whenever you go out. To be woken up at the optimum time based on your sleep patterns, you’ll go to sleep with your watch on. It seems sensible to propose that whatever watch Apple is working on you’ll never want to take it off your wrist.

You’ll need to forget you’re wearing it

People who don’t wear watches have a number of very good reasons for
making that decision. They’re too big. They’re too heavy. They’re too ugly. Attaching a small computer to your wrist doesn’t change many reasons for not wearing a watch. Any watch Apple makes will need to be incredibly light, incredibly thin, and unobtrusive to the point where you forget you’re wearing it. When you go for a run, do you want to be wearing a Rolex or a FuelBand?

More durable than any iPhone

If you’re going to forget you’re wearing your iWatch, it had better be a tough cookie. Glass displays and scratch prone aluminium are likely out, likely replaced with sapphire and other harder-than-nails materials, laying grounds for a truly exciting and different looking product. If the materials are unlike anything we’ve seen from Apple so far, then you can bet Jony and his team have been pushing the boundaries of whatever new resources they’re set on.

Revolutionary charging and battery technology

If we’re going to be wearing this device all day long, tracking every step we make, every beat of our heart, and every breath in our sleep, there’s going to be very few occasions where you’ll be wanting to take the device off and charge it. Unlike your iPhone that is left at the bedside to be charged while you catch some z’s, your iWatch will be on your wrist, keeping track of your movements and patterns all night. So when and how does one charge the device? What will the battery life be like? This is still a complete mystery, but I would be willing to bet money on Apple’s solution to these problems being a big reason for the device’s success.

It’ll tell you the time all the time

This may seem like an obvious one, but if I’m going to wear a watch of any kind, it better tell me the time all day long. It better tell me the time when I lift my wrist. It better tell me the time when my hands are full and I glance at my wrist. It better tell me the time more than it tells me I’m running low on battery power. It better not try to tell me anything is more important than the time and hide the time from me to show me a Twitter notification. Whether it’s analogue or digital, if it’s a watch it needs to tell me the time all the time.

Square vs circular vs no display

The best display you have is the one in your pocket. Or in your bag. The best display you have is never going to be on your wrist simply because the laws of basic common sense dictate that putting an iPhone sized display on your wrist would look and feel ridiculous.

No one buys a watch based on its pixel count today, and I don’t believe that will become a selling point for watches in the foreseeable future. On a wrist, the biggest impact on display size is wrist size. Bigger is categorically *not* better here, contrary to the continued growth in size of the iPhone’s screen.

Circular displays have always seemed so impractical for information display, but simply from an aesthetic standpoint, there is something very attractive about a circular watch face as opposed to a rectangular face. If I had to put money on it, I would bet we will see a very smart interpretaion of what a “display” actually needs to be, perhaps opting for something more akin to the Nike FuelBand but with ingenuity of Apple’s design team. I will eat my metaphorical hat if we see a full colour backlit Retina display on the device due to the power constraints.

The iWatch’s display will not be intended for reading on. It’s all about glancing, checking, getting on with your life. I wonder how much of iOS’s new style was designed with iWatch in mind.

Functionality — What will the iWatch do?

Sensors and HealthKit

During this years WWDC, it felt like there were a few elephants in the room. APIs in the SDK for iPhones with varied screen sizes, without any actual iPhones with bigger screens was one elephant in the room. Another elephant was the announcement of HealthKit without any clear and seamless way to collect a lot of the data that its APIs are capable of. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to conclude that HealthKit’s primary objective is to collect all of your iWatch tracked health and fitness data and visualise it in one place.

Back to the subject of screens and pixels for a moment — why try to visualise all your health info on a tiny display strapped to your wrist? It seems crazy to put any graph or chart on your iWatch when you have a beautiful display in your pocket that’s at least 4 inches in diameter to visualise all the data you want.

NFC and payments

Judging by component leaks, many more informed people than I are confident that the next iPhone will include NFC (Near Field Communication) technology to allow for many new use cases, one primary use being payments. We already have contactless bank cards, allowing you to make small purchases (sandwiches, coffees, etc) without needing to swipe your card or enter a pin — just tap and go.

Apple already has more cards on file, thanks to iTunes and the App Store, than almost any other company in the world, giving it a great head start in this space. If Apple is bringing NFC to the iPhone, then it would be completely logical to bring it to the iWatch too, opening up even more possibilities.

Living in London, I use an Oyster card every day to travel on the Tube and on buses. London isn’t alone in offering contactless top-up cards as a form of ticketing, but I know the system better than any as it’s in my home town. Rather than getting my Oyster card out every time I enter the Tube system and every time I leave, I would simply extend my wrist and the barriers would open as if by magic. What’s more, I could simply glance at my watch, see the time and make sure I’m not going to miss the next train (what an idea!), and also see my current Oyster card balance without ever having to unbutton my coat to reach for my iPhone.

Another big opportunity that comes with NFC is the ability to pair devices together with much more ease. Simply hold your iWatch to your iPhone 6 and boom they’re paired. No nasty Bluetooth pin code or anything like that. If Apple is rolling out NFC to the iPhone, there will be a lot more to it than simply whacking a new chip inside the device (unlike almost any other phone maker so far) — I am sure I’m just scratching the surface of the opportunity that comes with adding NFC to the iPhone and iWatch.

HomeKit — it’s in iOS 8 for a reason

HomeKit also raised a few questions when it was announced at WWDC this year — a set of APIs that allow 3rd party home automation appliances to be connected through the iPhone and other iOS devices. The big question, of course, was whether Apple had any plans of building their own devices that would hook into HomeKit.

Apple has been building a large structure outside the conference centre where they’re unveiling things on Tuesday, and in true Apple style they are keeping it entirely under wraps until the big day. Nobody knows what it is, but some have speculated it could be used as the hands on area for new iPhones and whatever else Apple chooses to launch. Could it be a mocked up family home? If it’s a house then does that mean Apple has more up its sleeve in the home automation space than the 5 minutes of stage time HomeKit received at WWDC?

If Apple is showcasing its announcements in an actual house on Tuesday, it raises a lot more questions around Apple’s future plans for making its way into your home: Is there a reason Apple didn’t feel the need to buy Nest? Is the iWatch the new key to your house? Is iWatch the new personal key to every item in your home from the coffee machine to the TV, instantly personalising the world around you based on your unique fingerprint identified by the apps on your iPhone, extended from your pocket into the real world by your iWatch with NFC?

Apple TV magic wand

If any of my thoughts and predictions here are to be considered “out there” the this would be the one.

In Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the man himself proclaimed “I’ve finally cracked it” on referring to interacting with an Apple designed TV. We’re several years on and there’s still no sign of an Apple TV set, or a change in the way we all interact with our media on a big screen. When thinking about the possible uses of an iWatch, and the number of sensors and trackers it would contain, it made me realise — what if the iWatch could effectively be a Wii style controller that’s always strapped to your wrist, without the need for the controller part itself? Could you feasibly control a TV interface with your iWatch, simply waving at the screen with gestures to control your movement through the UI? What’s more, could the idea of everyone having their own iWatch enable seamless interaction and on screen personalisation without any confusion over who has which remote control?

Due to the complete lack of rumours around such a device, I don’t believe Apple is planning to announce anything TV related on Tuesday, but I like the idea of iWatch being the “magic wand” to your TV (and other household devices) so much that it’d be a sin not to include it here.

Siri and saying more

“Wish we could say more” — Apple’s tag line for the event on Tuesday. I never usually read in to Apple’s tag lines ahead of events. Recently they haven’t given much away. The graphic for the invitations to the event on Tuesday are simply of a white Apple logo on a grey background. But if the words are to be taken with more than a pinch of salt, could they suggest a deeper use of Siri in Apple’s announcements? Could Siri be the ideal interface to the iWatch?

The (seemingly unsuccessful) iPod Shuffle with no buttons released back in 2007 used speech to help you navigate through the UI without a screen — could this have laid some early ground work for a device that has similar requirements — a small (or no?) screen, big constraints on battery power and size of controls. The big difference with the iWatch being that you would speak into it, rather than it speak to you. iPhone already supports “lift to speak” with Siri, and that exact technique works perfectly with an iWatch style device too.

Marc Newson joins Apple

In a week of beautifully well orchestrated announcements in major publications, Apple has been building hype better than ever ahead of Tuesday 9th. The latest news from Cupertino is that the Australian born, prolific, and truly inspiring product designer Marc Newson is joining Apple’s design team, and will be based out of London.

It’s no coincidence that Marc joining is announced just a few days before Apple’s event on Tuesday. What does this signal? A bright orange line of Apple products? Or a continuing shift in Apple’s understanding of global fashion and style, and a bolder offering of accessories and personalisation options for future devices? Only time will tell.

I couldn’t be more excited to see what Apple will announce on Tuesday. Will we see 2 new iPhones? 3? New iPads? An entry into the home automation market? An entry into the wearables market with iWatch? Or a combination of all of these and more? Let’s see what Apple has to say.