Over the last few weeks, the rumour mill has been heating up about Apple products again. At this time last year, the Next Big Thing was the mythical Apple television set – or at least a revamped Apple TV set-top box that had the blessings of cable companies and had access to their content – which to this day is still nothing but a rumour. People are still predicting this to be revealed to the public in the next year or so, but until something happens, that’s old news. Essentially the same predicted hardware and functionality, that while great, is just the same repeated rumour over and over again. Since the public’s appetite for all things Apple must be fed, the latest rumour to pick up steam is based on a wearable computing device, in the form of a so-called iWatch.
Wearable tech has been called the next leap forward in technology, but it has been around for years in various devices. However, many feel that it is on the cusp of going mainstream. Fitness technophiles will be the first to point out the usefulness of their Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up, and Fitbit One. These devices simply clip on to your clothing or wrap around your wrist, and then go about their business tracking your movement and reporting the analytics back to you in meaningful ways. Not to sit idly by, Google, the masters of categorizing and presenting relevant data to you, have an ongoing limited public trial of their version of wearable tech, in the form of Google Glass. This pair of glasses has a small built in camera and computer that interprets what you’re looking at and serves up data to you as you need it (such as reminders, or map directions, or contact info), displayed directly on to the lens of the glasses. This has the potential to be a game-changer. However, in my opinion, there are a few problems with this: it’s not discrete enough (nor stylish enough to go mainstream), and having a camera always on has inherent security risks. This is why I think an Apple watch has the potential to be a hit. It could be as subtle as a wristwatch, fashionable, and be much safer.
In terms of hardware, we can expect it to have the usual Apple elegance and lust factor. One can imagine that it would naturally have a Retina-grade touchscreen to make everything it displays gorgeous. Function-wise, you can’t have a Retina display turned on all of the time without it being a massive battery drain. Maybe they would opt for the lower resolution display with a pixel density comparable to the iPad mini or pre-Retina devices, but that would still need a lot of juice. Forgive my admitted ignorance of feasible screen tech, but I think it would be cool if the watch displayed an e-ink or LCD-like clock when at rest, and when activated, the Retina screen would overlay on top of this. That kind of technology would be perfect for a watch, as it would conserve power when not in use, and only when required would the brilliant display kick in and start to drain the battery. Of course, this watch isn’t going to have the incredible number of pixels found in an iPad, so there is no reason to think that it would require the horsepower of an A5 or A6 chip to run it, nor would it need large amounts of RAM. Also, today’s battery tech would need to be improved in order to get a mandatory multi-day charge for the device, as consumers aren’t going to want yet another device they have to remember to charge every night when they go to sleep. (For comparison, my Fitbit One gets nearly 7 days on a charge – though this has a minimal display, it is tracking movement 24 hours a day.) I can see some modest amount of memory, alongside a new or potentially die-shrunk chip and relatively minuscule battery, all of which would have to be precision-fitted into a space that would fit on your wrist. If they were to continue their reliance on Corning’s glass tech, it could utilize the new version of Gorilla Glass (I know I’ve nicked and scraped my old watches countless times!). Alternately, one of the hotter developments at Corning is Willow Glass, a new kind of bendable glass that can be wrapped. A wrappable glass could be used very well to form to the contour of a wrist much more nicely than a flat piece, which would be especially useful for smaller wrists. A minimal bezel could surround this glass, with a Home/Wake button located on the edge to maximize the screen size – a departure from the usual iPhone/iPad/iPod touch design, though more akin to the previous generation square iPod nano (which itself was widely used as a watch with aftermarket watch bands). One could imagine the body to made of brushed aluminum with the highly polished chamfered edges found on iPhone 5, though with reports of iPhones being easily gouged on edges, this may not be a good place for this design. An intriguing idea would be to make the body or backing out of Liquid Metal, which has yet to make a meaningful appearance in any Apple product since it was purchased a few years ago. A biometric sensor would likely be included for security and applications, potentially built into the underside like an optical heart rate monitor, along with low-power Bluetooth to facilitate connections with other Apple devices, rather than a Lightning connector. Unless the watch had onboard storage for photos and music, which I highly doubt, I don’t see a need for a Lightning connection – all communications could happen over Bluetooth. An accelerometer and gyroscope would likely be included, as well as a microphone, though I don’t think that a speaker would be necessary.
About the style of the watch, it would need to have an easily adjustable band of some sort. I have a hard time seeing Apple incorporate a leather strap with holes in it, though that would be more acceptable than a traditional metal clasp band which requires you to go to the watch shop (Apple Store?) to have links removed. The adjustability of this watch has to be simple and elegant, with some kind of proprietary locking mechanism, likely. Having not tried a Jawbone Up, I would think that a wrappable lock-less design such as that would be less than ideal from a security standpoint – it could potentially be easily grabbed and pulled off. Perhaps something like the Nike Fuelband might be more appropriate, where the band itself is a preset size, and for wider wrists, extension “links” can be inserted to fit better – another place for a proprietary Apple connection! In terms of colour, you can easily predict that the watch face would have a black or white bezel, potentially extending to the band itself as well.
Now that we have an idea of what this Apple watch might look like, the next obvious question is “what will it do?” Of course, a watch has to tell the time, so it needs a clock app. As I referred to earlier, an always-on clock would be nice, and if my dual-tech screen were to become a reality, this would look like a traditional (albeit with Apple style!) digital watch display most of the time. Alternately, with a more typical Apple touchscreen display, one could image the face to look like a sleeping iPhone display when inactive, requiring a touch or a button press to wake it up and show the time. In fact, this wake-up action could display the watch’s lock screen, showing the time, date, and some version of slide-to-unlock to do anything more. With an integrated biometric sensor, there would be no need to password-protect the watch either, though I think that would always have to be an available option. Through its Bluetooth connection to your iPhone, iPad, and Mac, these devices would likely be able to push any updates that would appear in Notification Center straight to your watch, including new emails, missed calls, calendar appointment reminders, etc. Apple may open up development to third parties in the App Store, though any apps would obviously be very limited in what they could do. Fitness apps would be an obvious suggestion, especially if they could tap into the biometric and motion sensors. Other than that though, I don’t know how many apps would find a home on the small screen of a watch.
Incorporating Siri into the watch would be an intriguing inclusion, though I don’t necessarily agree with general opinion that this would be needed, for these reasons. For starters, Siri only runs on post iPhone 4S devices, with reasons provided that it requires the power of their CPUs to process the natural language recognition. I doubt a watch CPU is going to be powerful enough to do this, especially if it hopes to get good battery life. Secondly, as it stands right now, Siri requires an Internet connection for the Apple servers to process your queries. While that would work fine on home wifi networks, what about being out and about during the day, where you require 3G or LTE connections to cell phone carriers? Are they going to start offering subsidized Apple watches now as part of their cellular plans? I highly doubt it, and having a device that only works at home doesn’t seem very Apple-like. Any type of network access would likely be provided via Bluetooth tethering to your other iDevices. This leads to my final point, that if we consider the watch to be a peripheral accessory, it doesn’t need to RUN Siri. Rather, it needs to make use of its connection to your devices, invoke Siri there, rely on its data connection, and then provide you with the results. That way, your iPhone does the heavy lifting, and your watch essentially becomes equivalent to your Bluetooth car mic – a very fancy I/O device specifically for your Apple product. I think this makes way more sense for a watch than including Siri as a native application, especially if you consider the alternative is a hit to the battery life between charges.
To conclude, I would like to comment on it’s potential name. While everyone seems to assume that this device will actually be called iWatch if/when it is announced, I don’t know if I complete agree with this. So far, Apple’s iDevices include iPod, iPhone, iPad, and iMac. An iWatch would have to be a pretty big thing to rank up there with the big boys, rather than be considered as simply an accessory to them. If we assume that it would have a much more limited functionality than any of these devices, I don’t think that it would be a stretch to think of it as an accessory. If so, I could see it getting a more playful name (like EarPods) or functional name (like Retina Display). My idea would be something like CuffLink – it explains where it’s worn, and says that it’s a link to your other devices. Both playful and functional. You heard it here first!