Waiting for an Apple iWatch? Don’t hold your breath.


Last week, I finally received my Pebble smart watch. You may recall hearing about the Pebble back in April of last year. At the time, it garnered a lot of press, not only because it was a pretty cool device being created by a small startup and not one of the major players, but also because it broke all of Kickstarter’s records to become the most funded project to-date.

Pebble Smartwatch

The Pebble smartwatch in black, with mag-power cable attached.

The Pebble isn’t so much a new idea (the concept of a smart watch has been floating around in one form or another for years) as it is an evolution of popular notion: a watch that is less time piece and more a wearable computer, possibly as an accessory to a smartphone.

The success of the Pebble project immediately gave rise to rumours that Apple themselves had started work on a smart watch product. The idea gained instant currency because of the iPhone, and the inclusion of watch faces on the 6th generation of their iPod nano, a feature which spurred many entrepreneurs to devise watch bands for the squarish, touchscreen media player. Further fueling the fire were other smart watch projects from companies like Sony and Motorola. Surely Apple would join the fray.

Those rumours have only grown in recent weeks with talk of Apple placing orders with Corning Glass, the maker of Gorilla Glass, for curved glass lenses. It was just too much in the way of coincidence for those seeking verification of the mysterious “iWatch”.

But before we start readying our wallets and our wrists for this next magical and revolutionary product, let’s consider a few reasons why Apple might disappoint those hoping for a wearable with the famous bitten-fruit logo on the back.

1) Apple has a history of staying focused on products that fulfill needs that consumers don’t even know they have until Apple shows them the latest gadget. Though this pattern hasn’t been in evidence much lately what with a few year’s worth of purely iterative launches, an “iWatch” would need to have serious wow factor in order to meet the criteria for a new Apple product.

2) Apple doesn’t play around with niche products. With the possible exception of the Mac Pro, all of Apple’s current line of devices are mass market crowd pleasers. Nowhere is this more apparent than the iPhone and iPad, each of which has recorded sales in the millions of devices annually since launch. An Apple watch would be a risky play. Yes, most people wear watches. But no one company dominates the watch market. It is heavily commoditized and new styles appear every day. Watches have become fashion accessories, even amongst men, with plenty of folks owning more than one and switching up the watch they wear according to outfit they’re wearing or the event or activity they’re participating in. A smart watch wouldn’t be very helpful if you weren’t wearing it, and if you are wearing it, you’re not wearing another watch at the same time. So it had better be VERY helpful if it’s going to be the last watch you ever put on. Apple’s ability to design beautiful devices is the stuff of legend but they have never had to design a device that by its very nature, is a part of a person’s wardrobe. Phones are returned to pockets or purses when not in use. Tablets, laptops, media players are merely tools. Yes, it helps if they look appealing but it isn’t mandatory. A watch is a different story altogether. Can Apple or any company for that matter design one that will be appealing to both sexes, complimentary to  – or at least not detracting from – most outfits, and still offer that wow factor I mentioned earlier? If the answer is no, Apple has a problem. Because they need to sell millions of their iWatch. The 80,000 that Pebble racked up won’t even pay for the software this thing will run.

3) Battery life is a major concern. It’s bad enough that iPhones and almost every other smartphone on the planet require charging every 24 hours or less depending on usage. But we’re reasonably content to go through this exercise in exchange for the seemingly endless number of ways these devices improve our lives. Could the same be said of an iWatch? Right now, unless you own a Pebble or one of the handful of other smartwatches on the market, you probably only think about what keeps your watch running every few years when the battery finally dies. Is the mass market ready for watches that are as high maintenance as phones? Again, the answer depends on just how useful this device turns out to be. Keep in mind, the more wonderful a watch like this is, the more power it will consume. Even the Pebble, with its monochrome e-paper display and limited processing power requires charging every 7 days according to the company’s claims – it’s probably more frequent in the real world. If an iWatch is a colour, touchscreen device with Bluetooth (all very likely specs) we can expect to have to charge it at least once every 48 hours – possibly more if it displays a watch face 24/7.

Now that I’ve thrown cold water in the whole iWatch idea, it’s probably worth mentioning that such a device would have to offer at least a minimal amount of water resistance, if not the ability to withstand showers and the occasional dip in a pool. The Pebble can do this and it drastically increases the likelihood that owners will wear it during key activities like working out.

Bottom line: I don’t think Apple is going to be launching an ‘iWatch’ anytime soon.

So what about that whole curved-glass thing? Am I saying that was all just B.S.? Not necessarily.

When it comes to curves in the Apple design language, they seem reserved for the corners. Keyboards, mice, iMacs, iPads – heck even Apple TVs all have curved or rounded corners. But the screens on these devices? Flat. Very flat.

The only product that I can remember ever possessing a curved glass screen was the 4th and 5th generation iPod nanos. They were gorgeous devices, with a double-curved body (thus the need  for a curved lens for the screen) and a built-in camera on the 5th gen. Interestingly, this was the last of the non-touchscreen nanos.

But there’s one other product that Apple still makes that features a very similar double-curved body. The Apple remote. It ships with the Apple TV and is a delightfully understated chunk of solid aluminum with a simple set of controls embedded in the top, curved surface.

So bear with me now, because here comes the crystal-ball part: What if Apple is nearing completion of its heavily rumoured yet still unannounced next-gen Apple TV product?

Much has been speculated with regard to this theoretical product, mostly because of the tantalizing quote from Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs in which he said:

I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use […] It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.

Words like those are hard to dismiss. While I’m still not convinced that Apple is ready to market an actual TV set, I strongly suspect that they are hard at work on the next generation of remote control. If I’m right, it will share much of its physical DNA with the existing Apple remote, but with a much more advanced set of capabilities. It will need a screen. That screen will be curved.

Apple remote

The current Apple remote. A lovely, simple design that makes use of a double-curved block of aluminum.

If that doesn’t seem like a stretch, this next part ought to get you questioning my sanity:

That curved screen will not be touch-sensitive. I know, crazy right?

But here’s the thing with using touchscreen devices for remote controls: they suck.

A really great remote becomes an extension of your arm. You can leverage its most commonly used functions like changing the channel or muting the volume without ever looking down at the device. Touchscreens simply can’t deliver that kind of experience. You need buttons. Well-placed, well-shaped, buttons.

Loewe Assist Remote Control

The Loewe Media Assist remote control with colour display screen. Could this be the next Apple remote?

If you’ve used the existing Apple remote, you know what I mean. The raised surface of the round directional ring, the slightly depressed design of the centre enter key, and a similar difference in tactility between the menu and play/pause buttons – these elements combine to make the Apple remote a device that you never need to look at. Within minutes of picking it up for the first time, your thumb knows exactly where it need to go.

I predict that Apple’s next TV product will combine this kind of superb blind-operation with a display capable of giving you more information when you want it.

Now if you’d like a rumour to back up this wild speculation, here it is: Apple is supposedly in talks to acquire Loewe, a high end European consumer electronics company that builds HDTVs and – you guessed it – remotes with built-in screens. The rumour has been circulating since mid-2012, and just like rumours of an Apple TV product, it refuses to die.

Okay, your turn… does this all sound like a reasonable interpretation of what we know so far or should I be paying my doctor a visit for a re-evaluation of my meds?

Feature image credit: Gizmag.com

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One comment

  1. Hendrik Alschner

    Superb !
    Easy to follow.
    Logical.
    Reasonable.

    New M7 proc of the iPhone 5s is a good example: The iPhone bundles sensors + processing + display. I would design it like that:

    – a simple, sleek, elegant wristband for the RIGHT arm, not concurring with watches
    – or maybe a ring for the finger
    – no screen at all !
    – Bluetooth 4.0
    – iOS notifications signalled to wrist just by vibration (you’ll look them up on the phone anyway)
    – perhaps a mic + button built in

    Idea: That would play very well with a curved glass remote control WITH touch controls !
    While moving your finger (right hand) over the touchscreen, the ring or wristband on the same hand would give you tactile feedback. The whole tactile feedback thing could also play together with older iPhones (even 4s) and iPads (even iPad3). If Apple could solve the vibration physics with a revolutionary technology, the battery could last months.

    Anyhow, no additional screen needed & wanted. If you’re ready for reading something, just pull your iPhone. If you need to react, you’d need to pull it anyway. If no immediate reaction needed, maybe a realtime notification also makes no sense at all. If iPhone is near, but stuffed, it could signal anything by tone so I can pull more info + react via SIRI. So a mic + tiny home button on the wrist band or ring would be ideal. As the device would lack any sensors, this could be packaged in smaller format than current Fitbits, Fuelbands and the likes with battery life for months.

    Like