Thursday, May 22, 2014

An Apple iWatch

A lot of speculation has been thrown out about an Apple smartwatch, known commonly as the iWatch. Many expect one to happen soon. One perennially wrong analyst has gone so far as to claim Apple only has 60 days left to do launch one (or die). What we don't see these analysts do much is consider what it would take for Apple to succeed in this field where everyone else is failing.

The challenges

If Apple is to enter the so-called smartwatch market, there are a number of challenges that must be addressed. The first is to recognize that most smartwatches are actually quite dumb. An ordinary wrist watch displays the time at a glance under any circumstance. A dead battery should rarely be a concern, not a daily one. Most current smartwatches do not address this.

Another challenge: who is the addressable audience for such a device? Tim Cook has pointed out that most young people don't wear wrist watches. And yet, 1.2 billion watches are sold annually with market leaders Swatch and Rolex collecting billions of dollars in revenue. Thus, Apple has two goals to reach in wrist watches: luring young people to wear watches and convincing current watch buyers to buy Apple watches.

Rather than approach them as separate, the real challenge here is to build a device that meets the needs of both. An Apple wrist watch should both appeal to the aesthetics of the existing wrist watch market and update the antiquity to draw in a younger crowd. A balance must be struck between the reliable wrist watch and the gadgetry of the always-on, connected world.

In addition, the wrist watch market is clearly split between luxury and utility. The average cost of a Swiss watch is $739 while the average cost of a Chinese watch is $3. Very obvious which country focuses on which end. Current smartwatches live in a nebulous middle ground. They are intended for utility but priced for luxury. Apple will need to pick a side. (Admittedly, I suspect this will not be a tough choice for them.)

Finally, what could Apple do to make their wrist watch stand out from the crowd? This challenge is basically solved by addressing the problems outlined above, but it is important to recognize that Apple will not bother with a smartwatch if they do not think they can adequately distinguish their product. Anyone expecting them to enter the market with the same product as everyone else needs to re-read history.

A solution

With those challenges in mind, I have formulated an idea of the wrist watch Apple should create. Be aware, I have no inside knowledge as to what Apple is planning in this or any field. This is purely my interpretation of how Apple can use their resources to overcome the outlined obstacles.

Put simply, I believe Apple can succeed in this field by releasing a hybrid wrist watch: a mechanical timepiece with a digital display. Oh, and it would have solar panels in the band. Allow me to explain...

1. Mechanical Timepiece

The core of the iWatch would be a mechanical clock. Yes, an old-school, precision timepiece but with some modern updates. Lest you think Apple would never release a mechanical watch, here's a list of Apple executives who wear old-school wrist watches. Plus, Apple design SVP Jony Ive personally designed a wrist watch for charity, and there was that one rumor that Apple was poaching Swiss watchmakers.

So now that we have established that a mechanical watch is in the realm of possibilities, how might they make it? First, it would be a hybrid, not purely mechanical. The time-keeping mechanism would be conventional, using sapphire and Liquidmetal gears and bearings to ensure accuracy and durability. The benefits of using sapphire jewel bearings is well-established, as is Apple's vast supply of the crystal. Liquidmetal, aside from being highly durable, is also able to be cast into shapes with negligible shrinkage, making it ideal for tiny precision parts. More relevantly, Apple holds the exclusive license to use Liquidmetal in consumer electronics.

The hybrid part would consist of an electric motor to wind the mainspring and adjust the time. It would engage one gear for winding, another to change time for DST and moving between time zones. The motor obviously requires power, but once the watch is wound, it will display the time regardless of whether the electronics are turned on or the battery is charged. The needs of modern gadgetry would not get in the way of time-telling.

2. The Other Face

Sandwiching that mechanical core are the digital and electronic parts. Above the watch face, built into the sapphire cover is a transparent OLED display with capacitive touch input. The transparent OLED display, as the name explains, allows light to pass through, meaning you will be able to see the mechanical watch face when the display is off. Glance at the watch, you see the analog time. Tap the watch, the OLED lights up to show the digital time, date, and current notifications. Swipe left and right to move to different faces, double-tap to return to the home face or turn off from the home face, and so on.

And what might these other faces be? Obvious stuff include alarms, calendar appointments, reminders, weather, and stocks. Other functionality might include a compass and pedometer fed with data from the motion sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer) and M series motion processor tuned for arm movement. The core of these features would be simplicity. Just like the original iPhone improved on the mobile phone, these features would augment what a normal watch can do, not simply be smartphone features crammed into a watch.

As to how Apple would implement this transparent OLED, I point to patents they filed for an efficient OLED display and, more importantly, a method to selectively make parts of a transparent display opaque. Using such methods, parts of the display could become opaque to show alerts without fully blocking the timepiece beneath. Or the full display could be go opaque but allow a level of translucency, similar to the translucent layer effects of Notification Center and Control Center in iOS 7. The layered interface of iOS 7 is practically prepping us for layered displays.

3. Computer Bits

Resting beneath the mechanical watch are the chips and electronic guts. Wireless connectivity would be through Bluetooth LE (low energy) and allow notifications to be pushed from an iPhone. Two-way sync would let you turn off alarms or decline calls from your wrist instead of reaching in to your pocket. The iWatch could also act as a proxy to trigger Immediate range (touch) iBeacons and display Passbook barcodes. Check in or grab a coupon with a pass of your wrist, not your iPhone.

Another feature that could be implemented with Bluetooth LE is Find My iWatch. Without Wi-Fi or cell connectivity, this feature is limited, but still better than nothing. At its simplest, a paired iWatch and iPhone could alert you when one falls out of range of the other or runs out of power. Beyond that, a lost or stolen iWatch could be tracked by registering it as lost and allowing other iPhones to report when its signal is found, similiar to StickNFind's "lost sticker" functionality.

Without connectivity, just as the mechanical core will run without the electronic, the smartwatch bits would be able to function without an iPhone. A parent iOS device or Mac would be required for setup, updates, and live data, like weather reports. But alarms, appointments, and reminders would all be sync'd to the iWatch, so you'll see and hear them even if your iPhone runs out of juice. The motion processor would keep collecting data to sync to your iPhone later. An iWatch should not need connected to an iPhone, iPad or Mac to do the job of a regular wrist watch and more.

4. Power

Powering the electronics is a battery sitting on the bottom, taking up most of its footprint. The battery itself would hold enough juice to carry it through a day, in part because of its size but primarily from the low consumption. The "always-on" watch face is mechanical, the powered display lights up as needed, and the wireless is limited to Bluetooth low energy. The design is highly energy efficient, to the point that it could be charged by sapphire-shielded solar panels on the segmented band.

Apple has been rumored to be tinkering with solar-powered iPhone, but a solar-powered smartwatch is more plausible. It requires far less power, and solar powered wrist watches have been around for years. However, a smartwatch, even one this efficient, will need more collection surface than a watch face. This leaves the band. It's known that Apple has a deal with GT Advanced Technologies for sapphire manufacturing, but did you also know GT is able to produce super-thin solar panels by blasting wafers with an ion cannon? 20 micrometers thin, to be exact. Seems thin enough to build into a band. And if you're the type to wear his watch under his sleeve, I'm sure someone will build a light in a box for overnight charging.

5. Construction

As mentioned, sapphire and Liquidmetal are ideal for the inner workings of an iWatch, but they are also well-suited for the outer body. Apple already has a line on mass sapphire production. It may not yet be viable to produce Liquidmetal in the quantities necessary for a new iPhone line, but production of an iWatch would start on a far more limited basis. In terms of procurement, Apple has ready access to the necessary materials.

Of course, unless you don't wash your hands (and if you don't, what's wrong with you?), any wrist watch must be water-resistant. This is not something Apple is known for, but they could break that trend with a fully sealed wrist watch. You'll notice in my description of the electronics I mentioned wireless sync and solar charging but no sync or charge port. That's because there is none. Body is sealed tight.

6. Saying "NO!"

You may have noticed that my vision of an Apple wrist watch is missing a few things common to other smartwatches. That's because I know Apple isn't afraid to say "no" in order to create a product that works. Sure, I can think of a few uses for a camera in a watch, but one thing it doesn't do is help battery life.

The big omission I'm sure you've noticed is no Siri. This iWatch will have a little ringer for audio alerts, but it's not for voice interface or music. Not only would these be huge battery drains, but talking to your watch is childish. Yes, I grew up watching 'Knight Rider' just like everyone else who wants to talk on their watches, but now I'm grown and watch 'Person of Interest'. You want voice command, wear a Bluetooth headset (or if you want to be a badass like Root, get an audio implant), order a CommBadge, plug in your EarPods, or just talk into your iPhone. Coolness aside, talking to your watch may sound good in theory, but in practice, on a busy street, you'll be moving it back and forth between your mouth and ear.

Another "no" is no third-party apps or extra development. This iWatch is a companion device, not a standalone, with tightly restricted power and storage. On the other hand, there should be no extra work to make iPhone apps work with the iWatch. The parent device (iPhone, iPad, Mac) controls what alerts get pushed to the iWatch, and these are treated like any other alert. From the iWatch, motion data gets sync'd back to the iPhone motion processor automatically. Data should flow naturally from one to the other.

The point of this watch is to enhance what a wrist watch does. At its core, a wrist watch displays the time. Additional features should build off that theme. A smartwatch should be a smarter wrist watch, not a tiny smartphone proxy or a poor substitute for a headset. An iWatch should complement your use of iPhone and headset, not act as a mediocre surrogate for them.

Or, if I can coin a phrase, a smartwatch should be a "glanceable" device. Any information it gives you, whether the time or an appointment notice, should be readable with a glance. If you need to spend more than ten seconds reading or digging through screens on your watch, it'd probably be quicker and easier to pull out your phone or tablet to do it. Glance and done. That's how easy an iWatch should be.

7. Cost

Precision watchmaking, sapphire and Liquidmetal construction, ion cannon-sliced solar panels. How much could that cost? Remember how the average cost of a Swiss watch is $739? In that range.

Obviously, Apple could cut costs by swapping in cheaper parts and materials, but again, the challenge is to build a watch that competes in the luxury end of the market. This has to be a watch that a high-powered executive would wear during the day to get stuff done before switching into his Rolex at night. Over time, production will scale up and costs will come down, but construction quality must start high and remain so.

That said, less expensive models could arise over time. A later model could use an electronic analog watch face and capped charging port instead of solar. A similar model could be fitness-oriented with impact-resistant, rubberized body and band and onboard biometric monitors. Further out, Apple could expand with a line of basic wrist watches with Bluetooth alerts and no OLED - an iWatch counterpart to the iPod shuffle.

On the other hand, iWatch could simultaneously go deeper into the luxury market with limited editions of special designs and exotic materials. Imagine a Product (RED) design with red watch face available only at Apple Stores, or a strictly limited release with a platinum face with gold hands sold only at flagship stores. Now that everyone has an iPhone or iPad, an Apple wrist watch designed as a luxury good could rejuvenate the exclusivity of Apple's brand. This, I'm sure, is something that would greatly interest their new head of retail, Angela Ahrendts.

And don't think Apple is above limited releases. Limited edition iPods were all over the place back in its heyday. More importantly, wrist watches are intended to last for many years, much longer than the typical mobile phone. What drives repeat sales of wrist watches is fashion, not features. The iWatch should receive incremental tech updates every year, but new styles are what will drive growth.

The Benefits

So now that we've looked at the what and how of Apple making a smartwatch, the remaining question is why. Why should Apple bother with an iWatch? The obvious answer is financial gain. The global wrist watch industry was estimated to have $60B in global sales and $7B in U.S. sales in 2013. Not a lot compared to Apple's fiscal year 2013 with $170B in sales, but there's potential for growth, just as there was with mobile phones and tablets when Apple entered those markets and ate all the profits.

A more important factor is the aforementioned point of brand exclusivity. Apple's success stems from their premium products and a perception of exclusivity. Hard to push exclusivity when you're pushing millions of iPhones a month, and harder still when you've got to sources those parts. Samsung sells more smartphones, but that's spread out over a lot of cheaper models with different parts. They never need to source a particular set of high-end parts in the same volume that Apple does.

An iWatch, if Apple goes the luxury route, gives them a product that can utilize more exotic components and be sold in quantities (and at prices) appropriate for an exclusive brand. They can use it to ramp up production of Liquidmetal until it is viable for use in other products. They can use it to try out new tech like transparent OLED and solar power. Pundits keep saying Apple needs to get new products to market, but what Apple really needs is an outlet to experiment with advanced tech that isn't yet available in iPhone-level quantities.

Finally, this iWatch gives Apple a product that can drive more on the liberal arts side of the crossroads of liberal arts and technology. Yes, there is a lot of highly advanced tech, but there's also an old-school mechanical watch face. Yes, there would be tech improvements over time, but the sales driver would be style and fashion. This is the big challenge for Jony Ive and his design team. Gadget geeks will gladly wear gear that looks stupid, but most people won't. An iWatch should be a technological marvel but people should buy it because it is a beautiful watch, regardless of its "smart" features. That should be the real measure of its success.


Let me again state that I have no inside knowledge as to Apple's plans. This iWatch I present is solely my interpretation of the challenges for such a device and the resources at Apple's disposal. The technology listed are those currently used, licensed, or researched by Apple. I believe it is very plausible for Apple to bring them together to create such a device. Whether Apple pursues this goal in this manner is up to them.

Regardless, I do believe the smartwatch field will remain niche until and unless these challenges are properly met. There seems to be a fixation, by analysts and vendors (especially Google with their Android Wear initiative), on the "gadgetness" of smartwatches. They seem to believe there is some demand for another screen to look at. To an extent, they're right. We are spending more and more time staring at gadgets. But there are devices far better suited for this, smartphones and tablets, than small-screened wrist watches.

Also, while people are accustomed to perpetual upgrades in the ever advancing mobile phone field, wrist watch buyers expect their purchases to last for years. The driving force behind new sales is fashion, not technology. People who own multiple watches wear different ones for different outfits and occasions. Motorola seems to recognize this with their fashionable Moto 360, but the customization options point to a one-watch-for-all-occasions strategy. It's pragmatic but seems to rely on the same tech-driven upgrade strategy as smartphones.

Instead of making watches that are surrogate smartphones, vendors should focus on making smarter watches. They must understand why people buy wrist watches and offer convincing arguments to why their smartwatches are the better choice. There needs to be a recognition that the field of competition is all wrist watches, not just "smart" ones. Only then will the wrist watch market follow the mobile phone path and shift from "dumb" to "smart".

An Apple iWatch


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