Thursday, September 11, 2014

Watch: Design is What You Leave On the Cutting Room Floor

Absence reveals purpose

Looking at what isn't (as far as we know) in the Watch tells us a lot about the problem the device is designed to solve.  Unfortunately, unlike in some past keynotes, this time Apple didn't start their presentation by telling us what real-world problems the device is intended to solve.  Which is not the same as saying that Apple didn't have such a vision in mind before they started designing; the fact that they left so many "features" on the cutting-room flaw tells me they had a clear understanding of what the watch was intended to be.   This is not surprising, as it's part of Apple's DNA.  Apple ruthlessly cuts features that don't further their products' ability to solve the problems that Apple intends them to solve.

Once Apple had a vision for a problem to be solved, the solution was constrained (and suggested) by the special characteristics of the wristwatch form factor.  Watches are far more "intimate" (Apple loves to use that word) than iPhones and iPads (each of which Apple has previously described as being more "intimate" than earlier computing form factors).  It has direct contact with your skin.  It's always available - no need to pull it out of a pocket or purse.  It's always right there with you, strapped to your arm.  Once you put it on, you forget about it.  Any lights it flashes or sounds it makes may be heard by those around you, so it needs to be something that works from a social perspective (the anti-Google Glass).

My belief is that Apple saw the primary problem to be solved to be that of personal communications and interactions.  The Watch is intended to increase your own capabilities.  To essentially be an extension of yourself that provides you with additional senses and improves your abilities.   It does this by focussing on communications and personal activity.

It extends your senses by filtering the firehose of alerts, notifications and incoming communications that come into or are generated by your phone into a more manageable garden hose (or drinking straw) of important information that is delivered as unobtrusively as possible, where possible without you having to even look at the watch.  To the extent you need to look, you "glance," providing less of a distraction from the real world around you.

It allows you to communicate with others in a far more personal way, bringing a far more literal meaning to "pokes," allowing you to share heartbeats and personalized animated emoji thus distilling the shorthand of text messages down to something even more fundamental.

And it allows you to prove your identity - the person in "personal" - to others via Pay, in a manner that may induce less friction than reaching into a pocket for your iPhone, and which extends this ability to provide proof of identity to those not willing or able to fork over (yet) for new iPhones.  (Technical note: I use the term "identity" loosely.  Merchants and the like won't know who you are, unless you choose to tell them.  They will only know that your bank has approved a financial transaction and that they will get paid.  The identity here is a particular sum of dollar signs).

And with an array of sensors it quantifies what you do in an attempt to help you improve your physical health with the help of Health Kit and related apps.

With that in mind, what is missing from Watch, and what do these absences tell us?

Cell network support

Some of Apple's competitors have loaded down their smartwatches with a 3G radio.  For example, the Samsung Gear S (their Tizen-based watch) has a 3G radio so there's no need to tether to a smartphone or the like in order to get internet access.

It's clear that Apple's vision for Watch is not as an autonomous iPhone replacement.  It doesn't (apparently) come with a web browser, a software keyboard for banging out emails, etc.  It's apparently intended to augment an iPhone in order to allow access to important or contextual information without distracting as much from one's physical surrounding.

The Gear S has been neither a critical (nor, apparently, financial) success, and one can imagine that the engineering tradeoffs involved in providing 3G support had something to do with it.  The tradeoffs, of course, are:
  • increased hardware complexity
  • bigger design - one needs room for the antenna, radio, baseband chip, SIM card, etc.
  • high power consumption (and hence reduced battery life)
The wristwatch form factor is also not the best form factor for phone functions, to the extent anyone sought 3G support for placing calls.  Imagine holding your wrist up to your ear.   Of course one could use headset or earphones, but it's hard to imagine using a smartwatch, at least without some unspecified new enabling technology, as a primary phone.

Instead of providing a cell radio, Apple relies on the Watch's Bluetooth and wifi radios to pair with an iPhone.  iOS 8 and Yosemite added features to make "hotspot" sharing much easier, and I assume that part of this was to support frictionless connection sharing with this new device.  (Side note: Thank goodness Verizon is rolling out VoLTE, as simultaneous voice and data over their 3G network isn't supported by iPhones without it, and the it would seemingly be unpleasant if the Watch was starved of data just because I was making a phone call).

In other words, a cell radio does nothing to further Watch in its mission, and so, at least in this first version, is not necessary.  (One can easily imagine a future in which voice and other interfaces improve to the degree that the watch can replace a smartphone for most folks, in which case things will change).


Apple describes the Watch as being resistant to rain and sweat, but you can't take it swimming or in the shower.  This is a bit surprising, particularly if one believes Apple believes the Watch to be an activity band.  Some pundits had predicted, in fact, that activity and health monitoring was to be the primary focus of the device, and that it might not even have a screen.

Well, the fact that it does have a screen, and that it has watch in its name, tells us that health monitoring isn't the devices primary focus.

On the other hand, Apple does dedicate much of the hardware space to activity monitoring and will be offering a "Sport" collection of Watches tells us they do take this purpose seriously, and hence it is surprising that at least the Sport collection isn't waterproof to the degree where you can use it in the shower or while swimming.   I expect this to be remedied in a future model.  I believe Apple will be selling these things under a "stable" of brands, including Beats and a second, more luxe brand.  We will likely see variations in plastic and titanium, with all sorts of cases and bands.  It may be the second generation before it happens, but I firmly believe it will happen.

Why not yet? Not entirely clear.  Maybe some technical issue stemming from the Digital Crown or the Button makes it difficult.  Maybe they tried and found the sealing wasn't reliable, so they'll continue to work on it.  Time will tell.


Many of Apple's competitors have placed cameras in their smartwatches.  It makes a certain amount of sense; the best camera is the one you have with you, and a wristwatch is likely to be worn everyday without being taken off very often.  A smartwatch also makes an interesting vehicle for something like FaceTime, though in practice it may be awkward holding one's wrist still for so long.

So why didn't Apple include a camera?  I believe it was primarily an engineering trade-off, and future revisions may well include one.

First, the "the camera you have with you" argument doesn't carry much weight here since to use the Watch you have to carry an iPhone, so you'll have a camera anyway.

And the tradeoffs from putting one in are substantial.  Any such camera would inherently be worse than the phone's camera, due merely to available space.  The sensor would be smaller, meaning worse low-light performance, the distance between the lens and the sensor would be smaller, meaning a less-than-useful focal length, and it's far easier to exactly point a phone than it is to position your wrist just-so to aim.

Interestingly, Apple could have leveraged its unique band system that makes it easy to swap bands in such a way that they appear integrated into the design, and come up with a "camera band."  They would merely need a couple electrical contacts where the band installs at the watch.  This would look somewhat dorky (others have done it) and while I'm guessing Apple thought about it, the lack of need and the engineering tradeoffs would have lead them to quickly throw out any such thoughts.

I suspect we will see Watches with cameras, at least selfie cameras, in the future, as such cameras would help the device in its mission to extend your ability to "intimately" communicate.

TV Tuner

Didn't the futurists promise us wrist-TVs by now?  Aside from the fact that over-the-air TV is fading as a popular technology, such a feature would add cost and complexity without furthering the device's mission.

IR Blaster

"It's a remote strapped to your wrist that you can't lose!"  Many smartwatches have this feature, which lets the watch be used as a TV remote (unless you're like me, and have your entertainment center wired up for RF control).  It's absence isn't a surprise; when iPhone came out, many of its smartphone competitors at the time featured IR communications, both for remote control and as a means for inter-device communication, yet iPhone never had such a feature.

With people watching less and less TV, and with more and more people using Roku's or Apple TV's or other wifi-controllable devices as their sources of programming, IR blasting is yesterday's technology.  Apple doesn't even support Blu-Ray, so not supporting IR blasting is a no brainer.  And, of course, it wouldn't do much to help the Watch in its mission.

Touch ID

The lack of Touch ID is a bit of a surprise, but Apple seems to have worked around its absence.  On iPhone, Touch ID now serves two purposes.  The newer purpose is as an input device - double tap (not double press) on the iPhone 6 Plus, and the screen shifts down to enable you to reach controls at the top of the screen.  (Which reminds me, I need to move the controls in my apps to the bottom).

The main purpose, however, is proof of identity.  You prove to the iPhone that you are who you claim to be by touching the Touch ID.  And, as of IOS 8, the iPhone will now vouch for you to others (both to apps and via Pay).

The double-tap gesture isn't needed for Watch, which brings the Digital Crown, edge swiping, touch, and pressure sensitive touch to the table.

And the proof of identity issue will be handled in a rather clever way.  When you put on the watch it can detect that you have done so, and it prompts for a PIN code.  If you enter the correct code, then you are likely who you think you are, and the Watch accepts you as so.  If you take the watch off, the Watch knows, and then makes you re-enter the code again before it will vouch for you again.  Since you probably don't take the watch off very often, you don't have to enter the code very often.  One of the primary purposes, and indeed the great triumph, of Touch ID was not replacing a password with a biometric, but reducing the friction required to prove your identity every time you unlock the phone.

Will Watch someday get Touch ID?  Maybe.  Presumably only when they can make it work under the screen, so it doesn't require more real estate.


This falls into the same category as camera.  GPS makes sense from the point of view of Watch's mission, but brings technical tradeoffs that don't currently make sense.  Position can be determined by the mandatory iPhone connection, and GPS takes a lot of power and volume that is better devoted to other things.

Keyboard (not even a soft keyboard)

Most smartwatches avoid keyboards simply because they are a terrible way of entering information into a device that small.  Instead we have Siri, Handoff to allow us to push data entry tasks to our iPhone, iPad or Mac, and communication by doodles, taps, and digital "walkie-talkie."   While Apple has always argued that iPad is as much about content creation as content consumption, I'm pretty sure they won't make such an argument about Watch.  This simply isn't part of its mission, and Apple has instead solved the "how do I respond to a communication" problem with Continuity and Handoff, suggested text responses, and Taptics.

Headphone jack

Need not apply.  The Watch requires an iPhone, and can act as the remote control for the iPhone's Music app, but you plug into the iPhone itself.  This reduces necessary size, saves battery, and solves the problem of how to deal with a wire that is connected to the end of an arm you may want to move around.  There seems to be some way to play music when the phone isn't around, but it's not clear if that's via the speaker or if it supports bluetooth headphones.

It also doesn't help Watch complete its mission.


One should think of Watch in the same way as the original iPhone. It lacked cut-and-paste, MMS, 3G, GPS, selfie camera, etc.   They started with the things that were fundamental to the device's purpose, and slowly added more along the way.  Along the way the purpose also changed, thanks in large part to the enterprising developers who rapidly filled up the App Store with software that extended the device in ways Apple never imagined.  The "killer app" for the Watch is likely to be something Apple hasn't imagined, and Apple will rapidly embrace it when it sees it and adjust the feature set accordingly.

No comments:

Post a Comment