Apple is hoping its new smartwatch will become a genre-defining device, much as the iPhone did with smartphones a decade ago. But unlike that groundbreaking technology, the Apple Watch will need to beat expectations in a huge way if it's to set the tone for the rest of the industry. And therein lies a big opportunity for the company that can come up with a better alternative.
Because the truth is, the Apple Watch is probably not the smartwatch we're looking for. It's a compromise device, one riddled with too many tradeoffs to be the killer gadget of the decade. We can do better. But it requires letting go of a key feature, one that hardware makers have been trying to shoehorn in ever since they decided smartwatches were the next hot thing.
The touchscreen has to go.
Touchscreens have no business being on a smartwatch, and here's why: They suck up far too much battery power to be worth it. Even the most efficient displays work against a smartwatch's most basic function, which is to talk to the Internet. Without connectedness, a smartwatch isn't much more than an ordinary timepiece. It's even less than that if it spends more time being charged than out in the field.
"There are minimums — you certainly can't be [recharging] more than once a day," said Preston Moxcey, the head of wearable technology at Fossil.
Apple has apparently grappled with this question, too. Recent reports about the Apple Watch's battery say it's fit for no more than two to four hours of active, continuous usage. And while your mileage may vary under real-world conditions, even Apple may be worried about how long users will be able to go on a single charge.
The company, which declined to comment, has reportedly prevented developers from accessing the very features that would make the watch a revolutionary accessory.
"Apple is limiting all this nice stuff, all these sensors, NFC, haptics, heartbeat sensor, gyrometer — everything," one app-maker told Business Insider this week.
It's these components that could help end grocery checkout lines, unlock the door to your home or car on approach, turn your wrist into a way to control other devices with a wave of your hand, or monitor your vitals in real time, all the time. Nobody's quite sure how far we can stretch the smartwatch's capabilities. But as long as battery life remains a concern, this future will be a distant one.
Battery technology will keep improving, but eliminating the display would go a long way toward bringing that future into reach. Lest you think there aren't many savings there, consider the latest reports about the Apple Watch. If they're accurate, the battery lasts anywhere from two to four days when the screen is kept off and the watch is on standby.
Its passive mode, then, is the source of its greatest power. And in this respect, the smartwatch is totally different from a smartphone.
Smartphones are large enough that manufacturers can squeeze in heftier batteries. These batteries allow you to use your phone more actively — to browse the Web, check e-mail, play games. As I write, my iPhone's home and lock screen account for 16 percent of my battery drain. It's the second-most energy-intensive application on my device. That's okay, because even at those levels I probably won't have to charge my phone until tonight.
But in something as small as a watch, space is a luxury. That means smaller batteries, which means energy efficiency becomes a higher priority.
This is why touchscreens on a smartwatch make no sense. A mature smartwatch that's actually useful would keep a traditional analog or LCD face and forsake the high-powered display, saving all of the juice for advanced sensors. At that point, the watch would simply blend into the digital environment. But don't let the thought of a screenless smartwatch disappoint you. Behind the low profile would be tremendous potential. This is a case where less is more — a philosophy that should really resonate with Apple's minimalist sensibilities.
The idea makes even more sense when you think about how little information you can actually read on a smartwatch touchscreen. There are tough design limitations related to the size of the display, said Fossil's Moxcey.
"There's only so much space — if you just shrink everything that's on your phone, you can't read it," he said. "So you need to make some creative choices."
That may include new ways of conveying information, such as through subtle vibrations. New forms of iconography and more abbreviated text could also be a workaround. This may be useful as far as it goes, but if you wanted more you'd have no choice but to turn back to your other devices, or else swipe endlessly through a user interface that's even more limited than what you get on a phone.
How can a smartwatch be useful if it can't display information? you ask. How can it be useful if there's no screen for you to give it instructions?
Well, although touchscreens have become our primary interface with technology, it doesn't have to be that way. For decades, watches have come with these things called buttons. Some fancy ones come with little twisty bits that rotate around the face. Think of how cool it would be to give these features a 21st-century upgrade. (Hipsters and nostalgics would love it.) And they'd be super energy-efficient, to boot. Apple already knows how to do physical interfaces — it developed the first computer mouse, after all, and the original iPods all came with a trackwheel and buttons, too.
I'll close with one last thought. The name Apple is nearly synonymous with the word "apps." This helps explain why the company may be so committed to touchscreens on its watch today. But as we're beginning to see with smart thermostats, smart electricity grids, smart refrigerators and smart vehicles, the future will be increasingly about Internet communications between objects. And the Internet of Things is not primarily about apps. Or screens.
What we need is not a miniature smartphone strapped to our wrists. What we need is a timepiece filled with enough working gadgetry to make James Bond jealous.