Even if you are not a techie, you would have heard much buzz about the Apple Watch the past two days.
Apple Watch – image courtesy of Apple
Here's the scoop by Forbes.com:
It was supposed to be called the iWatch. That AppleAAPL+0.43% chose the more generic ‘Watch’ was both great and frustrating. Frustrating because it is going to be horrible to discuss in a sentence (“Did you mean ‘watch’ or ‘Watch’?”) but exciting because that was the only thing we all thought we knew about the device and we were wrong. Apple can still keep secrets when it wants.
Clearly the Watch is Apple’s pride and joy. It showed from the moment Tim Cook bust out the famed ‘One More Thing’ slide and in the pride with which Apple executives discussed what they had built. But while the slogan was a homage to Jobs, this was Tim Cook’s moment.
Products are typically developed over three year cycles and, even if it was longer, Jobs can only have given it a cursory blessing. Make no mistake, this is Tim Cook’s baby. Consequently the Apple Watch felt both familiar and alien so here is my guide to a product which marks the beginning of a new era at Apple… and possibly the beginning of the end for the ‘i’ moniker.
Design – Two Sizes With Endless Combinations
It is often said Apple products receive so much hype that they cannot possibly live up to expectations. Given the personal nature of watch designs, this runs doubly true for the Apple Watch.
By and large, from a design perspective, Apple succeeded. The Apple Watch is arguably more conservative than many were expecting and takes a lot of the iPod-nano-as-a-wristwatch DNA, but it also does more than any other smartwatch to provide options for personalisation and it is closer to a piece of jewellery than anything we have seen from rivals so far (in fact Apple didn’t even use the term ‘smartwatch’ once in its entire presentation).
Apple Watch sizes – image courtesy of Apple
At the core of this philosophy are two Watch sizes: 38mm (1.49-inches) and 42mm (1.65-inches). Apple didn’t label them as ‘male’ and ‘female’, despite it being implied, and each is available in three editions:
Standard (stainless steel chassis)
Sports (aluminium chassis)
Edition (18 karat gold chassis which has been “formulated for hardness”)
Apple Watch – image courtesy of Apple
In addition to this the trio can be paired with six different straps which come in a mixture of leather and stainless steel and a variety of colour combinations. In total this provides a level of choice completely at odds with the despotic singularity of vision of Apple under Jobs. Whether that is better or worse remains to be seen, but Apple is certainly in uncharted territory.
Apple has also equipped each Watch with a sapphire display – something that was surprisingly missing from the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. I have writtenin detail about sapphire displays recently and while it should provide greater scratch resistance than the CorningGLW-0.38% Gorilla Glass used in our smartphones and other smartwatches much will depend on the composition of the sapphire and whether it is solid or used in layers. Again time will tell.
Apple Watch straps – image courtesy of Apple
Size And Weight – Wrist Friendly
Other than 38 and 42mm ‘options’ being available Apple is keeping the rest of the iWatch details close to its chest. This is something of a surprise when Watch samples were given to event attendees to try on, but those units were running a demo video so while they were widely described as ‘light’ it is impossible to know whether they represent finalised hardware. Given the delay until launch (more later) there is every chance the exact figures could change.
As a guide rivals like the Pebble Steel, Moto 360 and Samsung Gear range all come in around the 55 – 60g (1.94 – 2.3 ounce) bracket so I would be surprised if Apple didn’t achieve a similar figure (dependent on your choice of strap).
Apple Watch user interface – image courtesy of Apple
User Interface – Say Goodbye To Grids Of Icons
If the Apple Watch doesn’t look radically different from its rivals on a physical level, it certainly does when it comes to software. In fact the Watch – while running iOS – is a radical departure from anything Apple has done before.
Gone is the iconic (pun intended) grid of icons which is replaced with a galaxy of icons (for want of a better term) that the user is free to rearrange. You scroll around this with the Watch’s touchscreen and zoom in and out to find the icon – and therefore app – you want. The zooming is handled by the ‘digital crown’ on the side, a high tech variant of the standard watch crown used to wind a watch and adjust the time.
Why? Apple says it is impractical to use the pinch-to-zoom finger gesture it popularised by iOS on such a small display. To reduce manufacturing complexity Apple will therefore enable the Watch to be setup for left or right handed use. In practice this is simply inverting the UI while the straps will connect the opposite way round.
Apple Watch uses a ‘Digital Crown’ to zoom in and out – image courtesy of Apple
The Watch also widely integrates long press recognition into iOS for the first time. Some writers have said iOS does not do this, but anyone who has reorganised their icons on an iPad or iPhone will spot it is triggered by a long press. Long press functionality has also been a core part of Android and Android Wear, but it remains to be seen how confusing iPhone and iPad users find it when scattered throughout the operating system.
Apple adds a second aspect to navigation as well as the Watch detects the pressure applied to the screen, not only its duration. How developers utilise this will be fascinating, as will measuring the learning curve as the Watch seems unlikely to be the pick-up-and-play device users have taken for granted with generations of iPhones and iPads.
Apple Watch apps will offer a lot of functionality – image courtesy of Apple
Functionality – Full Blown Apps
Perhaps the biggest break the Watch makes from current smartwatches is the level of functionality it plans to offer third party developers. The company’s dev kit will enable full blown apps which can replicate much of the functionality of their phone and tablet equivalents.
The interesting thing is this marks a fundamental difference in approach compared to Pebble and GoogleGOOGL-0.4%’s Android Wear which work on the belief that smartwatches are about glanceable information and performing quick actions, rather than being a computing platform in its own right. As such the Apple Watch better lines up with the philosophy of Samsung’s Tizen-based Gear smartwatch range which acts like a mini computer, even though the Watch cannot work fully without a paired iPhone or iPad (more later).
Which philosophy prevails will be one of the most fascinating tech battles of 2015. Personally I must admit I currently favour the Pebble/Android Wear approach. Any action that takes more than 10 seconds on a smartwatch is something I’m likely to prefer doing on my phone, but swaying opinion is something technology excels at.
What may help this is the Watch’s integration of Siri. Much like Google Voice Search on Android Wear, Siri will act as a shortcut to performing tasks and it can be prompted by pressing in the Digital Crown.
Apple Pay will be compatible with Watch – image courtesy of Apple
Another persuasive aspect is that the Watch will be compliant with Apple Pay. This means the Watch packs NFC (though it wasn’t explicitly stated) and will connect with the iOS Passbook on an iPhone allowing users to pay for items just by touching the Watch to a compatible payment terminal. It can also bring up flight tickets and potentially even open our hotel room after Apple revealed a deal with the Starwood Hotels group.
Given Apple Pay will roll out gradually over its first year this may not be something you do with the first generation Apple Watch as much as you expect, but it could still sell a lot of devices.
Apple Watch rear sensors – image courtesy of Apple
Hardware – Many Sensors But Still iPhone Reliant
Typically Apple isn’t one for going deeply into clock speeds and processor cores and this remained the case with the Watch. Apple did say the Watch will run on the ‘S1’ chipset, but otherwise we will have to wait for someone to take it apart with a screwdriver and adapt some benchmarking software to get the full picture.
In fact Apple didn’t even reveal the Watch’s display resolution so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised at this secrecy. My bet is the company will want it to pass for a Retina Display – which means a 326 pixels per inch (ppi) density – but much will depend on how that affects battery life (which gets its own section below).
Where Apple was more open was in talking about the sensors within the Watch. The back of the Watch, from a geeky perspective, is arguably its most exciting angle and like other smartwatches it packs both an accelerometer (to activate the screen when tilted) and a built-in heart rate sensor. Perhaps surprisingly there is no integrated GPS (like the Sony Smartwatch 3) or WiFi but it will take this information directly from a paired iPhone.
Image courtesy of Apple
As for the pairing technology used, Apple was again silent. Bluetooth seems the logical answer, but Apple could well be readying a proprietary technology and it goes without saying that the Watch will only work with other Apple devices.
Another gap that Apple wasn’t keen to fill was the Watch’s onboard storage. 4GB has been the sweet spot many smartwatch makers have chosen, but Apple could again offer a range of capacities given its dislike of expandable storage.
Apple Watch with MagSafe charger – image courtesy of Apple
But the biggest omission from the Apple Watch announcement was battery life. Both fans and critics of smartwatches alike can agree that their ‘around a day’ battery life is not enough to tempt mass adoption. Users have already resigned themselves to charging their phones on a daily basis but watches have long been regarded as something that lasts months, if not years.
Personally I wouldn’t be quite so dramatic. With the potential convenience benefits a battery life of 2-3 days may be a strong entry point with the aim of reaching circa 5 days for the second or third generation product, like the Pebble and fitness trackers which are competing for the same space on your wrist.
Of course the fact Apple offered no insight at all into battery life does raise concern. Apple knows speculation will be negative and it appears that right now it doesn’t have a ballpark figure it is comfortable disclosing. The good news is there is still time to work on it. A pleasant surprise could be the difference between moderate and massive sales.
Where Apple did impress though was the MagSafe charger it has created for the Watch. It may be yet another Apple proprietary connector, but the way it magnetically snaps to the back of the Watch looks great and its wireless induction charging will appeal to many. If it can also offer speedy charge times it could also take some of the heat off the battery life figure.
Furthermore it also feels like we are getting a sneak peak at the future of Apple device charging. With Lightning headphones coming to iPhones and iPadsApple needs to free the Lightning port from charging duties and inductive wireless charging offers the style and convenience that would look great on iPhones, iPads and MacBooks alike. I certainly hope this is where Apple is headed.
Image courtesy of Apple
Price And Availability
Those convinced the Apple Watch is for them will have to wait until ‘early 2015’ to get their hands on it. They will also need to save up as Apple has unsurprisingly slapped a price premium tag on it compared to other smartwatches we have seen.
Apple Watch pricing will start at $349 compared to $199 for many Android Wear watches ($249 for the Moto 360 and Pebble Steel) and $150 for the standard Pebble. Furthermore with the option of an aluminium or gold chassis and an array of upgradeable watch straps I suspect the base price could easily skyrocket.
Apple is billing the Watch as a breakthrough product in the mould of the iPod, iPhone and iPad and it certainly has the potential to lead the race into wearables. Market reaction to it has been mixed, but according to social media tracker CorporateEdge Twitter usage exploded around the time of its announcement and throughout the event 98.2% of tweets were either positive or neutral.
From a personal perspective I have reservations. The physical design is fine if not breath-taking, but from a user interface perspective it is something users will need to relearn and I doubt the ‘galaxy of icons’ UI will be quite as convenient and accessible as Apple believes. Having long been criticised for its rigid grid of icons and folders approach, it appears strange that Apple has created something seemingly more disorganised for a smaller screen. Certainly sat together the two UIs don’t look like natural stablemates.
iPhone 6 Plus with the Apple Watch – image courtesy of Apple
To me this is more of a problem than something like battery life, which will inevitably improve with future generations, or even the premium price tag – something Apple device owners have long accepted. My concern is Apple has understood the physical ‘jewellery’ aspect to the Watch, but not the usage model. After all do we really want to spend significant amounts of time with our faces buried in our smartwatches, scanning our 100s of apps and their fully fledged functionality as we do with our phones and tablets?
In fairness, right now we cannot say. The smartwatch sector isn’t yet mature enough to know and Apple has made a business out of changing how we think about devices and how they are used.
Besides that’s the fun bit: it is exciting to think that right now either Apple or Google is wrong about how we will want to use our wearables. After years of identical smartphone slabs with grids of icons that is a wonderful divergence to have and finding out who is right is poised to be one of the best technology stories of 2015. Bring it on!