Thinking Through the Watch

February 14th, 2013

Now that the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have all reported that Apple is working on a wristband-like iOS device—in other words, Apple’s preferred method of pre-announcing products to the public—it’s certain that Apple is working on such a device.

The last time the New York Times’s Nick Bilton made a similar report about Apple was mid-July 2012, when he and Nick Wingfield reported that Apple is expected to announce an iPad Mini sometime that year. The iPad Mini was announced in October, just three months later. Bilton’s report on the watch, though, does not suggest an announcement date (just that it “might soon become a reality”), and says that Apple is “experimenting” with wristwatch devices made of curved glass. Peter Burrows and Adam Satariano’s report for Bloomberg, though, says that more than one hundred “product designers” are working on it, and that the team includes marketing group employees, which would suggest that the device is being actively developed as a product and is not merely an experiment. That makes sense with the near-simultaneous reports in the Times, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg.

I think, then, we can reasonably expect that such a device is coming. It’s an incredibly interesting device to think about because such a form is right on the edge of what we can do with mobile computers today and because it presents very difficult decisions about the device’s form and function. As such, I want to think through the watch a bit.

Form and Function

Ideally, a wristband-style mobile computer (hereon referred to as the “watch”) would be a standalone device that could also interoperate with the iPhone or iPad. It would have a decent-sized color screen, WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular data, GPS, a microphone and speaker. In other words, it would have all the hardware features of the iPhone, except in a much smaller package and would attach to the wrist. You would interact with it through touch and voice using Siri. It could act as a bridge to the iPhone or iPad (see messages and notifications on it, control media playback), but it could also be a replacement for many uses; instead of wearing an iPhone or iPod Touch while running, exercising at the gym or cycling, all you’d need is the watch on your wrist to track your distance and route. With Bluetooth headphones, you could listen to music and hear prompts from an exercising application, too.

Many places we go, a standalone watch would be completely sufficient. There’s little that you actually need an iPhone for while going out for the evening that the watch couldn’t do (texts, calls, finding where to go for dessert or a drink), and its smaller screen size—the main limiting factor—is actually a positive in this case (and many others), because it can be less distracting. You’ll probably zone out less checking Twitter, Facebook or Instagram while out with friends when all you have is a tiny screen to use.

But the watch will almost certainly not be standalone, at least initially, simply because our current battery technology doesn’t seem able to keep such a small device powered for a reasonable amount of time. The iPhone’s battery life is just acceptable, so it’s difficult to imagine a much smaller device with the same networking needs having anything approaching reasonable battery life—and that’s assuming it can all be miniaturized to a reasonable size. The odds are that the watch will instead be a Bluetooth accessory for the iPhone.

What, though, will it do? The standalone watch can replace a smartphone in many cases, which is reason enough to get one. But what about the watch-as-accessory? When Apple announced the iPhone, it had two uses that made it immediately obvious why it was a big deal: it replaced your phone and iPod with one superior device, and it could use the full web anywhere. What will be the watch’s defining use that clicks with people?

The apparent use is what Pebble and others do: alert you to phone calls, text messages and other notifications, and allow you to control media and some other functions. Apple could provide even greater interconnection so that the watch could use Siri through the iPhone’s connection. That could be convincing; with an improved Siri, there would be much less need to use the iPhone directly. You would be able to see and make quick responses to messages as they come in (or ignore unimportant ones), find a restaurant or bar to head to and get directions using Siri, get movie times, and control what music is playing in your car; in other words, you’d be able to do much of what we use the iPhone for without ever touching it. Passes in Passbook (airline flights, games, movies, etc) could be used without ever taking out your iPhone.

There are many potential uses for third-party developers, too. The immediately ones are for exercise. Even a dependent watch would still be a very useful exercise device; it could still track how far a person runs and for how long (like the Nike Fuelband and Jawbone Up do), instruct people on gym exercises and perhaps even track them, and do so without being connected to an iPhone. Even without a data connection or GPS, it would still be a very useful device for exercising. And if Apple could somehow build in a heart rate sensor, it could provide even more data than these applications have currently.

But there’s more potential, too. Tethered to the iPhone, it could serve as a tour guide for cities and other locations, instructing you where to go and pointing out interesting landmarks and information. While driving, it could alert you to new traffic jams up ahead.

Those are all fantastic uses (or at least I think so). Along with third-party services, the watch could completely eliminate the need for dedicated fitness devices like Nike’s Fuelband, Jawbone’s Up, and Fitbit’s various devices, it would make many tasks (like getting directions or information about things around you while walking around) much less intrusive and annoying, and could open up completely new uses.

That all might be enough to make the watch a compelling accessory—I would certainly like to use it. And perhaps that’s the right path to take. Rather than bill it as a new device, Apple can sell it wholly as an accessory, something that isn’t necessary but makes the iPhone better. From there, Apple can develop it until it’s something that can largely stand on its own. At that point, we would have a fundamentally new device.

A New Relationship

With the smartphone, because it can pack (relatively) large amounts of information on the screen and we can access it easily through touch, it’s very easy to spend minutes or even hours using it to browse the web, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other services. The smartphone is so engaging that you can end up disconnected from what’s going on around you, whether you’re waiting in line at a store or out to dinner with friends. We are all familiar with doing this or other people doing it. The smartphone is engaging because of its method of interaction.

Users, though, could have a much less engaging relationship with the watch. Because the form (small screen on the wrist) and means of interaction (voice, some touch input) are less engaging and carry less information than touch input with a large screen, our relationship with the watch will likely be very different. Rather than spend long periods of time using it, we will probably use it more as a utility, where we interact with it for some specific task and then go back to whatever we were doing. Instead of finding yourself checking Instagram when you pulled out your phone to look at a notification, you’ll just glance at your wrist, respond to it if it’s important, and go back to whatever you were doing. Instead of holding your phone while following directions to walk somewhere in the city, you’ll just glance at a street name, distance and arrow on your wrist.

In this way, the watch would be even more of a utility than a computer, a trend started with the iPhone. You use it for a specific task, and then it’s gone. It would take much less attention to use and it wouldn’t take you out of the moment while using it, as the smartphone tends to do. As such, the watch could be much more human than the smartphone. What I mean is that rather than force us to conform to it, it would conform to us to a much greater extent. It would provide us whatever information we need without interrupting the moment much, and it would disappear the second it provides it. It would empower us while doing what we want, rather than dominate our attention.

The smartphone is an addiction all its own. It’s always in our pocket and can provide us with almost limitless distractions when we want it, and because it’s always there, it can nearly become muscle memory to pull it out and tap around when there’s even just a few seconds of downtime. The watch could technically serve the same function, but simply because there would be much more friction to use it as such (tapping around on a tiny screen will simply be much more of a pain to do), we probably won’t. And because of that friction, the watch could be much more of a tool—something we take out when we need it and put away when we don’t—than the smartphone, which is much more akin to a security blanket.

That, I think, is a good thing, an improvement on mobile devices. Moreover, it speaks to a question that I think is important now and will only grow more important in the future: since mobile computing undoubtedly affects how we live as human beings, how do we want to live, and what role should computing play? Smartphones have a very engaged role, but “glasses”—mobile computers with heads-up displays, like Google’s Glass project—would literally become an intermediary between the world around us and our perception of it, because we would see the world through the computer’s display. In that case, computing would not only be integral to our lives, but would be our window to, and a filter on top of, the world itself.

I find that idea troubling, which is why I find the watch so promising. Rather than be a part of how we see the world, computing would be something we interact with when we need information or something done, and then it would go away. Rather than fundamentally change how we envision the world and interact with it, it would instead leave us as we always have been, but much more effective.

That question is as much philosophical as it is technological, and different people will have different takes. There is certainly an argument to be made that our advancement as a species depends on more deeply integrating technology into ourselves. Perhaps that is the case, and perhaps going down that road will leave us better off as individuals and as a species, but it points to what I think we should all be discussing more, which is what role computing should take in the future and what role it should play in our lives.

All that from a watch that doesn’t even exist. Yet.