If Apple makes a watch

I don’t claim to be any kind of Apple pun­dit, but I have some hunch­es about what their watch will be like if and when they release one.

The two fac­tors I see as being vital are price and sim­plic­i­ty.

Price

The Galaxy Gear starts at $299, which is a lot more, I think, than the aver­age per­son (i.e., non-Android zealots) are will­ing to spend on a watch that they have to charge every night. A suc­cess­ful watch, one that gets into the hands of mil­lions of peo­ple, will have to be clos­er to the “Apple impulse buy” price of the iPods Nano — at most $249, but I think they could do it for $199. (The Peb­ble E Ink watch is $150.) To reach that price point, an Apple watch will lack, for instance, a cam­era and a speak­er, which are includ­ed in the Galaxy Gear.

Pho­tos tak­en by the Gear aren’t exact­ly impres­sive, and, in addi­tion to cost, a watch cam­era adds bulk to a device that needs to be real­ly, real­ly svelte. I also imag­ine Apple may want to keep the band — where the Gear has stashed its cam­era lens — swap­pable for third-par­ty ven­dors. A cam­era may come in some future iter­a­tion of Apple’s watch, if they could approach par­i­ty with the qual­i­ty of the iPhone cam­era — iPhone users are too accus­tomed to tak­ing great pho­tos to tol­er­ate any­thing like what’s on the Gear — but it won’t be there to start.

The speak­er is also dis­pos­able, as most peo­ple will be lis­ten­ing to music or watch­ing videos on their iPhone or iPod Touch, either with its supe­ri­or speak­er or with head­phones. A head­phone jack wouldn’t quite make sense, either, teth­er­ing the user’s hand to their face. On the oth­er hand, a speak­er may come in handy for alerts that oth­er­wise wouldn’t be audi­ble from a phone in a pock­et, even if the speak­er is nev­er used to play music or video. Here there are more dif­fi­cult trade-offs, but I don’t think the lack of a speak­er would in any way doom an Apple watch.

Galaxy Gear’s $299 pric­etag cre­ates a roomy umbrel­la under which Apple can eas­i­ly out­price them.

Simplicity

Aside from hard­ware, a first-gen­er­a­tion Apple watch will lack a lot of soft­ware fea­tures that the Gear and oth­er smart­watch­es boast; to some this will be more fod­der with which to accuse Apple of fail­ing to inno­vate, but to oth­ers it will be an exam­ple of Apple’s rare abil­i­ty to say “no” to com­plex­i­ty.

I don’t know what app this Euro-bro is using to research wines in this uncom­fort­able and appro­pri­ate­ly viral Galaxy Gear com­mer­cial, but brows­ing on a 1.6-inch screen is some­thing no sane per­son wants to do, par­tic­u­lar­ly when there’s a 4-inch phone lit­er­al­ly a foot away. Sim­i­lar­ly, I don’t see a place for Twit­ter, Face­book, pho­to brows­ing, or, God help us, Angry Birds. These are apps that we inter­act with deeply, for rel­a­tive­ly long dura­tions, and with a need for gen­er­ous screen space, and the fact that we could put them on a watch doesn’t mean that we should. At first, at least, there will be no App Store for Apple’s watch.

Instead, the role that an Apple watch will fill is that of replac­ing all the micro-inter­ac­tions we have with our phones; the things for which we take them out of our pock­ets for less than fif­teen sec­onds: see­ing who’s call­ing us; see­ing if we have any new calls; check­ing the time; check­ing the weath­er; skip­ping a track on iTunes or Spo­ti­fy. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if third-par­ty apps weren’t allowed to send noti­fi­ca­tions to Apple’s watch, since bat­tery life will be pre­cious and the watch will be more in-our-face than our phones, mak­ing unwant­ed buzzings and beep­ings even more of a nui­sance.

Essen­tial­ly, Apple’s watch will be Noti­fi­ca­tion Cen­ter plus Con­trol Cen­ter. No Face­Time, no phone calls, no iTunes, no user-acces­si­ble inter­nal stor­age.

 

One of the major things on which I don’t want to spec­u­late is the pres­ence or absence of Siri. For Siri to work on an Apple watch, it would need a micro­phone and a speak­er, adding some bulk and increas­ing the price. But Apple is clear­ly proud of Siri, and it’s exact­ly the type of inter­ac­tion for which a watch is per­fect­ly suit­ed: quick and with­out the need for any tap­ping, scrolling, or pinch­ing.

Anoth­er wild­card for me is the M7 motion proces­sor Apple intro­duced with the iPhone 5S. This would make per­fect sense in a watch, func­tion­al­ly speak­ing, espe­cial­ly for types who have a use for things like the Jaw­bone UP. But it’s not clear to me how much the M7 affects bat­tery life; of course it reduces the bat­tery usage of apps that pre­vi­ous­ly relied on the pri­ma­ry CPU for col­lect­ing this data, but if you’ve no use for that data in the first place, col­lect­ing it at all will (won’t it?) reduce the life of an already very lim­it­ed bat­tery.

 

The oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty to all this, of course, is that Apple will “rein­vent the watch” with some­thing we’re not imag­in­ing (after all, we were pret­ty bad when it came to the iPhone), sell it at a price above exist­ing smart­watch­es, and hope to dom­i­nate the mar­ket enough that they can bring the price down in future iter­a­tions. I don’t see this as being like­ly, how­ev­er; the size and inter­face lim­i­ta­tions make the pos­si­bil­i­ties pret­ty tame. What can you real­ly do with a watch?

For an Apple watch to suc­ceed, it doesn’t need to “wow” us with futur­is­tic inter­ac­tions the way the Galaxy Gear seems to be try­ing to do, or the way the iPhone did in 2007. It just needs to be a help­ful com­pan­ion to the iPhone, with a fea­ture set that doesn’t over­whelm, a supe­ri­or bat­tery life to its com­peti­tors, and a price that will bring peo­ple into the stores (or catch their eye on the way out). Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I think peo­ple are expect­ing dif­fer­ent.