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.