The problems with the smartwatch even Apple can't solve

The problems with the smartwatch even Apple can't solve

Summary: The rumor that Apple is hard at work on a smartwatch keeps popping up, but that type of product has some issues that even Apple might not be able to properly address.

TOPICS: Mobility, Apple, Apps, iPhone
09 MetaWatch on wrist
MetaWatch Strata -- Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

We've heard for quite some time that Apple is hard at work on its next big thing, a smartwatch. There's even a product name all picked out by the pundits, the iWatch. According to persistent rumors Apple has dozens, maybe even hundreds, of its brightest employees getting the iWatch ready to blow everybody away. As exciting as rumors make the smartwatch sound, I don't think Apple is going to be able to adequately address some practical issues.

Smartwatches are nothing new, they've been around for a few years. We've seen models that simply serve as a second screen for the smartphone, some that connect directly to the web to retrieve information, and others that contain a whole Android device that can run apps.

See also: Fossil MetaWatch: The personal grid is here | MetaWatch Strata: Keep your phone in your pocket | WiMM One: Android for the wrist

Lack of engaging funtions for a smartwatch

None of these smartwatches have captured the attention of buyers. First, while it's cool when you first try a smartwatch, after a short period it gets, well, boring. I've tried several smartwatches and I really like the concept. Unfortunately, the limited functionality wears thin over time and the smartwatch ends up sitting on the shelf.

It's useful to a point, then it becomes readily apparent that it's not as cool as you thought when you first got the smartwatch. If you're like most people you have the smartphone, in the case of Apple's iWatch that would be the iPhone, in your hand most of the time that you're free to use a smartwatch. There's no compelling reason to look at the watch when you have a nice, big, high-resolution screen in your hand. The smartwatch ends up being used mostly as, you guessed it, a watch. Even that is less than useful as the time is displayed on that iPhone in the hand.

The watches that serve as second screens are a good example of the lack of engaging functions for smartwatches. These connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth and basically show phone notifications on the watch. This usually consists of caller ID, email, social network updates, and text messages. This is useful in that it you can keep the phone in the purse or pocket and check the watch when a notification comes in. Of course, over time the phone makes it back into the hand so it's easier to just check the incoming notifications on the phone.

Apple would probably give the iWatch the ability to run apps to make it useful. It might run full iOS or a special subset of it to run special apps that provide engaging functionality. That would almost have to be the case to give any reason at all to get buyers to open their wallets.

There's one big problem with this approach, the screen. The tiny screen, to be exact. A smartwatch shouldn't have a display bigger than a square inch to avoid being too big to be fashionable, and even that's pretty big on the wrist. Maybe Apple would try to make a watch with a longer, narrow display, but it would still have to be big enough to display enough information to be useful. That would be tough to do as small screens are not very practical to run apps. There's a reason why smartphone screens have been getting bigger and bigger over time, and they started out much bigger than a tiny watch display. 

The watch display would have to be a touch screen to be practical, and that brings challenges when a screen is that tiny. If you display icons and controls big enough to be tapped with a fingertip, that little screen gets filled up really quickly. You end up with a touch screen that doesn't display much at all which limits the practical functions Apple can give to its fancy iWatch.

Next page: Playing music; The phone watch

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Apps, iPhone

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  • Of course the smart watch is all you need and can replace your computer

    It's the next natural extension of the smartphone replacing everything. With wireless projection it can display on any avalible screen and uses Bluetooth keyboards plus voice and gesture control. Why would you need anything more?
    • Wireless projection? Then the battery...

      ...would have to be not a lithium one, but a dilithium crystal one, otherwise it would be out of power in no time. Wireless charging would probably be indicated, but it's slow, and you'd have your watch unavailable a large part of the time. Gestures? It depends on which gestures. If they are with the same hand as the watch, you'd have to be careful with what you did with your hands. Big no-no in Italy, I suppose... :-) If the other hand is to be used, the watch would need to have a wonder sensor and that would probably drain the battery even further. I don't think it would be comfortable to keep the arm in one given position for very long, either.

      Oh, and I'm afraid Apple must find some other name, as "iWatch" is probably already trademarked by Google, Doubleclick and/or the NSA... ;-)

      I don't think such a watch is for me. I would like, however, an otherwise conventional digital watch that updated its time by SNTP when you pressed a button and a WiFi hotspot was available. Quartz watches are very precise, but over time they can still build up a significant deviation from the correct time.
      • iThis and iThat

        I'm surprised Apple has not sued various companies that are using the i prefix in front of products and services ... Seems Apple is not protecting their iEmpire.
        • Patent/trademark trolls

          There are already people who have tried trademarking i-stuff names (the iPen, etc.) in the hope that Apple would try to use the name and have to pay them royalties to use it.
          Jacob VanWagoner
          • iPhone name was not invented by Apple

            iPhone, iRiver, and probably several other similar iStuff names were copyrighted before Apple supposedly "invented" iStuff naming madness. But, hey, Apple Reality Distortion Field works. Some people already forgot this...
          • Blame the iPod

            The iPod was such a successful device, they kept the 'i' for everything. Have they ever clarified what the 'i' is supposed to mean? Clearly not 'Internet' since iPod didn't access that.
        • I own an iTouchless

          Trash Can. The lid magically opens as your hand full of trash approaches. The only thing apple in my house is the rotten one I tossed in the iTouchless the other day :o)
        • Me, myself, and "i"

          Me was just served a "cease & desist" letter from Apple's iLawyers asking me to refrain from referring to myself as "I" and, of course me complied.
    • Only if

      you can get a processor with a satisfying performance level that doesn't warm up at all on your wrist.

      Oh, and a battery with enough total energy that you can wear it for a week at a time and never have to charge it. And the battery has to be small enough that the watch still feels light.

      But you're right about wireless interfacing to all UI devices. I see that as the future, replacing the laptop for standard business users (basic powerpoint and limited size spreadsheets [not the 1000x1000 tables I crunch every so often]) and the computer for everyone who only wants it to surf the web and play Angry Birds et al.
      Jacob VanWagoner
    • It's the future....

      While on the go,

      .....a wearable watch as the CPU / comms module, Google "Glass" type retinal projector as visual interface (for heavy lifting, …otherwise, a large watch display is sufficient for basic stuff) and a Microsoft “Kinect” - like dual parallax camera interface (...on the watch) as a command function / key board substitute. For truly lengthy work sessions, near field comms to dedicated peripherals.

      Battery life? Current semi development track will make lithium-ion more than capable of powering something like this for days at a time in 3 to 5 years (in the wrist watch form factor that is) ...but lets hope for the higher density battery technology efforts to come to fruition soon anyway - many other applications could use it regardless :-)

      Overall time frame? .... I'd say 3 to 5 years for a truly useful kit - but - you got to start somewhere ( why not with the iWatch :-)
      • Battery Life the problem is RF not semiconductor

        As soon as you use RF for wireless you have a problem with current consumption. We don't have a technology for lowering the power of the RF communications. If you drop the RF power you need a bigger antenna to receive it. We can make it more efficient but as soon as you start moving screen data you are moving a lot of data and we don't have significantly better compression algorithms that can improve much more. You can reduce the non-RF circuit drain but it will become a non-factor compared to the RF drain.

        Battery technology is improving but not enough to overcome this type of drain in 3-5 yrs.
  • 100% agree with this.

    It is the overall problem with wearable computing in general. The concept is nothing new. Glasses, watches, vests... have been with us for several years they have simply failed to spark the imagination and usage of users.
    • I think wearable computing can make sense...

      ...if it moves us towards bio-feedback control over devices (which is where I think we'll eventually get with computing). However, "smart" watches just don't make sense to me because 1) they have very small screens, 2) they probably have very poor battery life compared to regular watches, and 3) a smartphone can already be carried with you at almost all times if so desired.
      • Exactly.

        Even if they turned the entire watch plus wristband into one usable, flexible, wrap-around touch screen, there is still the issue of battery life. A smart phone can hold a substantially larger battery and even then, it only lasts a day. The space for a battery in a watch is significantly smaller. Who wants to have to find a wall outlet to charge their watch part way through a day? In fact, most people wouldn't want to charge it even once each day. Other watches run for many months on a battery. I don't see an iWatch matching that convenience.

        Then, there is the biggest issue. Very few people even wear watches these days. We mostly carry pocket watches, in the form of our cell phones. Who wants to return to the days of accidentally banging your wristwatch into things as you move, especially if it cost hundreds of dollars? Even Gorilla Glass touch screens are more fragile than the crystal covers on old school watches. Plus, who wants to return to the odd-looking white stripe around their wrist?

        In a nutshell, it's a product which doesn't actually fill a need, so I don't see it selling well.
    • Its the core problem.

      Its the problem that mobile suffers with in general. Secondary problem of course is lack of easy input functionality for some relatively simple tasks and downright difficult to work with input for more difficult tasks, thirdly is the typically, and quite understandably hobbled OS typically involved in most mobile devices given they have such a small display and cramped input ability along with very shrunken hardware capability to do much heavy lifting anyway.

      But the screen is where it starts. While the 10" screen size of most full sized tablets is actually just big enough to most "real work" on, its just barely that in some cases, and still not really up to the task in some instances. Steve Jobs, I honestly believe he felt the mobile tablet to be the successor to the desktop and laptop, but he knew that bringing the screen size down would progressively kill that possibility and objected to bringing in smaller tablets. I think its because of that reason. There is a very clear "sweet spot" for mobile devices that relies on a cross between the functionality of larger screen size for doing things on the tablet and a smaller screen size to keep the device small and light enough that makes it practically a one handed breeze to pull out and operate the device.

      It seems that sweet spot for "mobility" alone is about a 7" tablet give or take, depending on personal preference. This is not a particularly "good enough" size though for doing most real work, especially for any significant period. It was of particular brilliance of Jobs that he seemed to know full well, that to simply capitalize on the "mobility factor" would take away from real world functionality and severely hobble the tablet form factors likelihood of eventually being able to replace the majority of desktop and laptop computing as the hardware progressed and iOS progressed to the point of being able to do so.

      I think Jobs knew full well that his best bet was to really try to get everyone simply "used to the idea" of carrying around a 10" tablet, and eventually the hardware would be so good that an upgraded iOS would be in place that could rival Windows and at that point Windows might become obsolete in short order; if Microsoft had done little to nothing in the meantime to counter this surprise 'side door left' style attack on the traditionally Windows environment.

      On the other hand; getting the public distracted with a smaller and more mobile sized 7 inch tablet could easily take over for most people given that right now, all tablets except Surface Pro style tablets suffer from 'hobbled mobile OS ability' to do the vast majority of real work anyway, so many people, as in most people, may well opt out of the idea in the long run of hauling around a 10" tablet that might be the smallest decent size for doing real work on, in favor of a 7 inch tablet that's much easier to take on the run given the fact they currently are not able to do the vast majority of their work on hobbled mobile operating systems yet anyway.

      Smartphones are what they are. Anyone who reads here regularly has likely already read numerous articles about what a smartphone can be made to do when hooked up to other bits of hardware, but in the long run, a smartphone simply is what it is and a large part of that would always be the screen size factor.

      And then bingo, the smartwatch. Personal micro-computing. Typically at best, a smart watch might have about as little as a quarter or less of the screen real estate of a smaller screen smartphone. In short, its only going to be truly of practical use for a very limited number of functions, even if it could accomplish many more, they may simply be nothing more than exercises in how to exact a truly painful experience on oneself when they have a perfectly functional smartphone in their pocket that would yield better results in far less time without fumbling about with a microcomputer.

      Limited screen size, cramped built in inputs, hobbled operating systems. All are the downfall of mobile devices, and the one that seems to have the smallest of hopes of being solved in the next several years is indeed small screen size.
      • Some intelligent tech pundits still think in terms of a desktop on a wrist

        metaphor. And that's your problem also, Cayble. An iWatch product may not look like a watch even though it might function like one and I would bet that, as a product, it would in no way, shape or form act as a "desktop, laptop, hybrid, or tablet" stand alone replacement.

        Here's a thought based upon a concept that was posted online a few months back. It is a concept for an iBand type of device where the product is a thin band wrapping around the wrist and where the band also acts as the product's display.

        That product would have enough volume to include a battery to provide sufficient battery charge duration times and that thin band design would also have enough internal volume to encompass a next generation of iPod design elements. Perhaps the "iWatch" is the next evolution of the iPod device.

        Actually, what I envision the "iWatch" product's main capabilities to be are as a quick reference for online intel (Facebook or Twitter information) and as a conduit or command center for all of Apple's mobile devices and as a Apple HDTV remote control.

        A smartphone does all the above as well but a smartphone is usually stored on a person or in a person's belongings. Accessing information would be quicker on an "iBand" like device rather than on a smartphone.

        I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it included a microphone as well - needed, of course - if voiced based commands or tasks are part of the capabilities for this hypothetical device.
        • Ummm...nope. Sorry, not my problem in the least.

          "Some intelligent tech pundits still think in terms of a desktop on a wrist"

          Im not thinking that way at all, please excuse me, but Im thinking exactly the opposite if you read what I literally said.

          "In short, its only going to be truly of practical use for a very limited number of functions, even if it could accomplish many more".

          My point is that a smartwatch is NOT in no way going to be able to replicate even what a smartphone can, at least in no reasonable way, even if its eventually going to be packed with a computer chip that could do the work.

          "Anyone who reads here regularly has likely already read numerous articles about what a smartphone can be made to do when hooked up to other bits of hardware, but in the long run, a smartphone simply is what it is and a large part of that would always be the screen size factor"

          "Typically at best, a smart watch might have about as little as a quarter or less of the screen real estate of a smaller screen smartphone"

          In no possible way can I see how anything I wrote might even infer in some obscure way that I thought that someone was going to try and turn a smartwatch into a mini desktop or tablet. In fact, I cant see how given my thoughts on the massive impact of small screen size has on a smartwatch that anything but comparatively minimalistic functions of a smartphone would ever exist on a smartwatch.

          And that was my point. Its a problem, not because someone is going to try and make a smartwatch into a desktop; and that's bound for failure, but in fact the clear evidence appears to be that your not going to be able to make a smartwatch do much of anything particularly useful in the end. Not a failure due to being so difficult to use as a tablet replacement or smartphone replacement, no; a failure due to the fact it will be made to be so much less that what it will be able to do will be relatively little. It seems to me to be of reasonably high likelihood that the limited capabilities a smartwatch could productively produce may be of such a minimalistic nature it may not appeal to enough of the public to sell well.

          So no, I do not in any way what so ever believe that any company is going to try and pack a tablet into a smartwatch. Not at all.

          But price of course is a factor. The public will purchase "expensive" in surprising numbers when they seem to be getting something outstanding, they purchase in exceedingly smaller numbers when what they are getting is seen to be less outstanding.

          You mention the iPod for example. I own an 80GB Classic. And indeed an extraordinary piece of classic hardware for its day. For most "average" consumers, they were not exposed on any regular basis to high end mp3 players back when the iPod was busy carving out their market. If you were looking for huge capacity very expensive players prior to 2005-2006, they were not hanging like fruit on a tree around your local electronics store. Then suddenly, you see people saying, look at this "iPod" I just bought, it holds 40,60, 80GB, I know that blew a lot of peoples minds who had been fiddling about with 10-20Gb units they thought were pretty sizable storage capacities. That was a huge draw for many. I know, I went looking for "big cap" units back in 2006 and aside from a couple crazy expensive units I seen at Best Buy, there wasn't much about, other than iPods that is. That comes across as exceptional, and people will pay for that.

          A wrist band that will give limited notices about current activity on Facebook and Twitter...for example? I don't know. Better keep it cheap I think. For Apple, that would be real cheap.
    • Then Apple blew them away...

      I remember when many people had similar feeling about smartphones and tablets, both of which had been around for about a decade... then Apple blew them away.
      • Couple problems with that

        One, Steve Jobs is gone. The blowing away innovation thing was pretty much his doing.
        Two, everyone knew that smart phones, mp3 players, and touch tablets could be extremely useful and compelling devices before Apple came out with their innovations. There were lots of mild to wildly successful examples of each. The iPad may seem the exeption - but remember that the Kindle came two years before the iPad. Point is there was a recognized need for these things.
        So the problem with a watch is, what exactly is it supposed to do for you? No one can really envision a use that isn't already served, probably better, by a smartphone, that makes it worth messing around with yet another device that needs charging every night.
        I think the only way it could blow people away is if it were so capable that a significant number of people could get rid of their phone in favor of one. I'm not even sure Steve Jobs could pull that off.
      • Heard all the same arguments about iPad/tablets...

        Just having a wrist device that tells people who's calling, messages/notifications, and a better way to answer/place calls is a slam-dunk.

        I miss calls/messages in loud places because I can't hear/see the phone. And I miss calls/messages in quiet places because I have the phone on silent. A watch/wrist device/whatever solves both of these. Anything else it does (e.g. wrist-based maps) is gravy. (same story as the iPhone 1)