I Was Wrong about Apple’s iWatch

I Was Wrong about Apple’s iWatch

In September of 2010, I wrote a column in this space deflating the idea that Apple would ever make and sell a wristwatch.

I still think my reasoning was sound. But I didn’t know then what I know now. Specifically, two Apple technologies have become central to Apple’s long-term strategy. These two products — Siri and iCloud — change everything.

And because of this new information, plus a few new things we’ve learned about Apple in the past year, I’m completely reversing my opinion. I now believe the current rumors that Apple is getting into the wristwatch business.

I even think we can accurately imagine what Apple is likely to do in the wristwatch department.

In my old post, I wrote that Apple is unique in the industry in that it has three criteria for entering an entirely new market:

1. There are glaring problems or inadequacies among all major players in the market that can be solved by Apple’s core competency of elegant design.

2. The new market area enables Apple to control a new platform that supports an ecosystem of content, such as media or apps.

3. Both the potential market and the marketplace for content must be huge, mainstream and central to how most people live.

I then went on to say that the iWatch idea fails all three criteria: 1) existing watches can be awesome and elegant; 2) wristwatch-specific apps would be too small a market for Apple to bother with; and 3) an iWatch could never find the massive penetration of the iPhone, or even the iPad, given that most people consider wristwatches a fashion accessor, which they tend not to buy from computer companies.

All this makes sense — if you think of an iWatch as a wristwatch and a stand-alone device. But that’s not what the iWatch will be.

What the Rumors Say

The New York Times’ Nick Bilton blogged this week that Apple is considering a wide range of wearable-computing ideas, including a “curved-glass iPod that would wrap around the wrist; people could communicate with the device using Siri.”

Yes, this is just a rumor. But I believe they will build exactly this. Here’s why.

The iWatch Will Be a Siri-Based Remote-Control for iCloud

A stand-alone Apple wristwatch makes no sense. But an elegant remote control, lashed to the wrist, that enables Siri commands to bring things down from the cloud makes all the sense in the world.

Apple is already aggressively moving toward an iCloud-centric Appleverse where whatever iDevices you have connect and share with each other via iCloud. Take a picture on your iPhone, and it shows up on your iPad. Watch half a movie on the iPad, then zap it over to the TV via Apple TV.

Your music is in the cloud. Your movies are in the cloud. Your documents are in the cloud.

Apple is also aggressively promoting Siri as the friendliest of friendly user interfaces. Siri is clearly here to stay as the central interface for current and future iPhones. Rumors suggest a coming tsunami of Siri-based TVs, iPads, MacBooks and iMacs.

Steve Jobs’ eponymous bio suggested that Apple had made some kind of breakthrough in the improvement of the TV experience. Many have suggested Siri control is that breakthrough, and I think that makes sense. However: How do you talk to a TV that itself is blasting speech, and closer to the microphone than you are?

The answer is: You don’t. You talk to a device near to you.

I think it makes sense that future Apple TV or iTV (the rumored integrated TV from Apple) will come with a Siri-capable remote control unit. Or, you can use your iPhone. Or your iPad. Or your iWatch.

And why control just the TV? Why not also remote-control your iMac in the same way? Or your iPad? Or your iPhone?

As iCloud becomes central, we will come to view ourselves as being “iCloud users,” who have a wide range of choices about which devices we use iCloud with. They all talk to iCloud. Actually, we talk to iCloud. Siri is the voice of iCloud. And it doesn’t really matter which device we speak to Siri through: iMac, MacBook, iPad, iPhone or iWatch.

Over time, of course, Siri will gain a lot more agency, meaning that we’ll be able to request that Siri actually do more things — buy plane tickets, buy flowers and have them delivered, make sure the car is locked.

Theoretically, this kind of voice-command agency doesn’t even require an Apple gadget at all. It could all take place from any telephone.

I don’t know if Apple will ever enable phone-based Siri interaction. But such action could easily take place through a wristwatch, operating through another Apple device, such as an iPhone.

At minimum, a Siri-base iWatch would need to be little more than a Bluetooth headset with a loudish speaker shaped like a watch. But I think it will be much more than that.

Apple Has Fallen In Love with Wristwatches and Curved Glass

In the past year or so, Apple has gone through two big experiences that seem to have enamored Steve Jobs and the Apple team of both wristwatches and curved glass.

When Jobs announced the newest nano, he suggested that it could be used as a wristwatch. Weeks later, the world was flooded with third-party watchbands that turned nanos into watches. (I wear one myself.)

Apple doesn’t even try to hide its approval of this trend – in fact, the company actively supports it. Apple sells wristbands in its stores, and even rolled out an appealing line of watch faces to be used in nano wristwatches.

There’s just one problem. The nano wristwatches have sharp square edges that make the watch a bit clunky and bulky looking. The whole watch part of the combined nano-and-band setup sticks out too far from the wrist, and has four sharp edges. And that’s why I think Apple is probably going to slim it down and curve the edges.

At the very least, Apple will optimize a nano for wearing on the wrist. Why wouldn’t they? And curved glass is the most elegant and Apple-like way to do that.

According to Jobs’ presentation before the Cupertino City Council while introducing a new global headquarters building, he pointed out that the new “spaceship” campus building has no flat glass. It turns out that Apple intends to actually build a factory to manufacture curved glass for the building.

Apple started work this week on a new “prototype concept” Apple Store in Palo Alto, California. Its most conspicuous design feature will be a curved-glass ceiling and roof.

A normal company would put flat glass on their buildings. It would be far less expensive. And you can make roughly curved wall and ceiling shapes with flat glass. But Apple seems to have become seriously focused on the curved-glass concept as a signature design element.

There are also reports coming out of Taiwan that Apple has purchased equipment necessary for the manufacture of curved-glass products.

As an owner of the 27-inch iMac, I can tell you that the current size is close to a maximum size before using the edges of the screen become uncomfortable to look. The angle of my gaze at the center of the screen is perpendicular to the screen. But the farther out I look toward either edge of the screen, the greater the angle. If the screens get any bigger, it’s going to be uncomfortable to look at. (First-world problem, I know.) Still, Apple wants to keep making screens bigger, and users want bigger screens.

One solution for larger screens is a display that curves around, similar to a concept mocked up (not by Apple) called the iView.

I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of curved-glass devices emerging, not just from Apple but from other companies as well.

Call me fickle for reversing my prediction. Call me gullible for believing the iWatch rumors. But I believe a curved-glass, Siri-controlled, iCloud-centric wristwatch is exactly the kind of thing Apple can, should and will pursue in the next two years.

Image courtesy of Yrving Torrealba.

  • JohnWilson

    Interesting perspective. One thing you left out is that usually, in the far majority of cases actually, Apple prefers to be in a high margin business. Save for the Apple TV nearly all other products have a hefty margin. Could an iWatch also have a high margin? I’m not sure. A watch as technologically proficient as you suggest probably wouldn’t be a luxury watch; just a highly functional one. So I would think the $300-400 range. Also, people don’t really wear watches anymore, particularly those in the 35 and under crowd. Instead they use their cellphones. Also, in what instance does someone have their watch but not their phone? So couldn’t one just sub the phone for the watch? I’m not saying it’s not a good idea but it would have to be compelling for it to truly work. 

  • MacHead84

    Unless Apple is gonna let you share your Siri over bluetooth to your watch you arent going to be having a Siri controlled watched. Siri requires an internet connection and a watch that only functions when on wifi is stupid

  • recyclops117

    Wow just imagine if apple did make a watch and of half as many people who own iphones own the watch, no one would were normal watches anymore.

  • Brittp2

    I realllllllly don’t think that Apple will go the dick tracy way for the watch/phone of the future…
    link… Maybe cool in the DC world but today? No
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D

  • Evan Benford

    uses bluetooth or tethers to iphone

  • Len Williams

    I love the mockup shot. Invisible electronics, however, is several major technological leaps ahead of where we’re at these days. The one thing Apple is noted for is developing products that surprise everyone. Prior to 10 years ago, who could have predicted that the iPod/iTunes combination would rule the world? No one had a clue as to how to do an mp3/mp4 player and deliver a simple, workable content delivery system until Apple developed it. Who would have thought that the iPhone would reinvent the smartphone so that now every other competitor is trying to BE it? Who would have thought that the iPad would be the exact design that would resonate so well with millions around the world?

    An iWatch? Maybe, but if it does come it will have functions and features we haven’t thought of yet, and will coordinate with our existing devices and software in such a way that it will be “obvious” in retrospect that that was the way it had to be.

  • edn

    Quick note about the Siri as tv remote. It would not matter what the TV speakers where saying. You could use the audio track of the video to key out the audio the tv produces. This is easy, and we have been doing it for years in the audio recording industry. This would allow Siri to only hear audio that was being produced by objects other than the tv.

  • Mitch McKee

    I don’t think this would have worked when Jobs was around. His minimalist approach to all things, including his own appearance, would have most likely prevented him from finding a wrist-watch appealing. This is my opinion, not a fact, so I could be wrong.

    However, Jobs isn’t around anymore. So it’s theoretically possible that Apple could turn it’s attention toward a device like the iWatch. But I’m not sure the market would find it appealing. The iPhone and iPad met a demand that the people never thought existed. But consider old sci-fi movies. Hell, consider NEW sci-fi movies. The wrist-watch-communicator is one of the most cliched objects to ever be imagined. We dreamed them up as a gadget we wanted, but we overplayed them so much that if one was actually built, it would probably be a joke. Apple almost had a catastrophe after naming a product the iPad, and all of the jokes that came with that. A wristwatch that you talk to? I can think of 5 movie references, and those all branch into jokes. Apple isn’t into creating cliches, and I hope that they won’t start now.

  • atimoshenko

    There is a third component that Apple is pushing, which I would argue is even important for modular, wearable computing than Siri or iCloud are.

    AirPrint, AirPlay, AirDrop, aggressive Bluetooth 4.0 adoption (as well as some earlier features in AirPort/Time Capsule) – Apple is clearly pushing in a direction where devices are not only connected via the cloud, but are also aware of (and can interact with) their own surroundings and can extend one another on an ad-hoc basis. The cloud does not really help these local, physical interactions, but it is they that are the most important use case for wearable/modular computing.

    Whether there is going to be a “watch” or not, I do not know (indeed, how much of a “phone” was even the first iPhone, really, rather than a pocket computer that could also make calls?), but greater ad-hoc integration between the iDevices (and, importantly, including something iPod Nano sized) is certainly coming. 

  • SimpleChap

    Who wears watches anymore?

  • Christian Lunny

    Its called the iPod Nano.. and a wrist watch accessory… Siri update for the iPod and iCloud functionality… lets learn to project the future based on current technology rather then try and invent it based on our imagination :)

  • Alexander Andujar

    When it comes to the design, production, and implementation of something like an “iwatch” I think that the main hurdle that has to be overcome is what will power this thing. I own an ipod nano that I use as a wristwatch and the thing in standby alone uses up a lot of juice. Imagine if this thing had to be connected via wireless or bluetooth to other devices or the cloud. Looking at other Apple devices like the iPad, you see long lasting battery life and standby time as a staple of that technology. If the iwatch can’t do this then it won’t be successful. That being said, if it did work I would buy one!

  • Jdsonice

    The high margin argument makes sense. At the same time Apple could use the watch to control multiple devices. 

    The way I see this being a win for Apple is that Apple releases the watch and an API to it. Developers pay for the API and develop applications that allow users to control devices such as remote starters on their cars, home lighting, etc. Apple would then have a steady stream of revenue from these device manufacturers or users or both. I think this is such a great idea. It would be surprising if Apple did not do it.

  • Daniel Sorrentino

    it’s not going to be a watch, but an arm brace. think buzz lightyear talking to star command.

  • nmz502

    Ouch. . . an all glass watch. Imagine how much that’ll hurt when you hit your wrist on something and your watch breaks!

  • Chris Grayson

    I think they will get into accessories, but I believe the long term strategy is eyewear (this is also supported by many patent filings). A watch could be a lower risk test. I see it like Apple TV, as a testing the waters before diving in deeply. A watch-like iPod with bluetooth to your iPhone, where the majority of the heavy lifting is done by the iPhone, and the wrist-piece is merely an optional accessory as interface / input-device, makes more sense than putting the intelligence into the wrist piece itself. If the UX is well designed, the end user will be none-the-wiser anyway regarding where the processing is being done. The “iWatch,” if we must call it that, will be to the iPhone as the mouse is to the desktop.

  • jrlemar

    It still seems like a bit of a backwards step to me. I mean, I won’t totally discount the possibility, but it wouldn’t bet the farm on it. I just don’t know if people really want to wear watches that much, anymore.

  • flyboybob

    Why not a watch? I always feel like I am not completely dressed if I don’t have on a watch. I know that my kids and other younger adults have replaced their watches with their smart phones. However, a wrist watch is still the most convenient way to tell the time. Combined with the functionality of an iPhone combined with a little design imagination and a wrist watch similar to the one imagined here could make a comeback. Large watches are all the fashion rage among those who wear them. As for price concerns, if you have to ask the price of a Rolex, then you can’t afford one. The iWatch will be a lot less expensive and have a lot more functionality.

  • TylerHoj

    I just bought the Apple remote, I know, big spender eh…but it got me thinking. All of Apple’s products either die off and fade away or get revamped and ‘revolutionized’ so to speak. I think that the watch idea fits perfectly into the issue I was finding with this very simple remote, whats next? Steve Jobs having “cracked” the TV doesn’t necessarily mean the TV needs a revamp, perhaps its input needs a revamp. This concept of a Siri-enabled remote of iCloud proportions makes sense. I think you’ve just redeemed yourself in my books Mr.Elgan, very nice. 

  • Eduard Tiesto

    exactly. i never wear a watch anymore. my mobiles have had one for 15 years or so.

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  • Armycat59

    Thank you ! Very nice article and by the way, if you want to see a curved monitor :  http://www.crvd.com/  
    Hope to see Apple provide the technology seen in Avatar !

  • Al

    I’m sorry but is this whole story a joke?

  • Gregintosh

    Why would apple make a product that only people who are old would buy? It seems like getting into the industry at the stage it’s fading away. Young people are the future and they don’t wear watches.

    I personally hate having something around my wrist. I am in the 2nd half of my 20s and when I go to business networking or other events, I notice watches are rare.

  • rorowe

    I haven’t worn a watch for years, but if it gave me the same information as my phone, at a quick wrist-glance, I could be swayed for sure. 

  • flyboybob

    What’s old can become new again and what’s new becomes old very quickly. Sometimes thinking outside the box works.

  • Mike Elgan

    Thanks, Tyler. 

  • Mike Elgan

    Because people all carry phones, which tell you the time, the time-telling wristwatch is perfectly obsolete for practical use. It’s still useful to some people as a fashion accessory. However, a wristwatch as a Siri-based remote is the oposite of obsolete. : ) 

  • Mike Elgan

    See my comment above. Only timepieces on the wrist are obsolete. 

  • Mike Elgan

    People haven’t stopped wearing watches because the idea of wearing something on the wrist is obsolete. The idea of a redundant time telling device is what’s obsolete. 

  • Mike Elgan

    There’s no way the watch will be all glass. The picture is just a found concept project. 

  • Mike Elgan

    In the 80s and 90s, people used to think cell phones were for old people. You may not have heard about this, but technology sometimes changes. 

  • Mike Elgan

    This was probably all Jobs’ idea. 

  • Miles Bader

    Er, but certainly it’s wrong to say that cellphones make watches “perfectly obsolete”—a phone doesn’t really offer the same functionality as a watch.  A watch is right there, allowing one to tell time a glance; a phone must be fished out of one’s bag/pocket etc, and often some button pressed or the phone opened etc (annoying!).  A watch is usually highly visible in direct sunlight, whereas many phone displays are almost unusable in direct sunlight (leading to weird contortions trying to shade one’s phone with a hand enough to make out what time it is… good luck if you’re carrying anything!). A watch is often usable in context (sports, etc) where one would never want to carry a phone.  And of course then there’s the fashion thing…

    So cellphones certainly reduce the pressure to wear a wristwatch.  But they aren’t a replacement.

  • Jwdsail

    and don’t forget Apple has a patent for using screen surfaces for image capture.. add that to this concept and you have FaceTime on your wrist, via the iPhone in your pocket… Siri, handsfree, facetime for your iphone, Mac, iPod, and Mac? All on your wrist? Seems like a killer idea..

  • conniefoote

    I used to work at Starbucks. To make the steamed cinnamon apple cider we
    would take cold apple juice and steam it as if it were milk. 

  • billg

    I think its likely that Apple and other tech companies will introduce wirelessly-connected wrist displays….just a matter of time. 

    However, I don’t see people talking into these devices – at least in the short term. While a watch can be I/O device….it’s real value is in delivering the “O”…particularly when the “O” is consumed in a simple glance. 

    Talking into a Siri-integrated watch adds a lot of complexity, cost, and power consumption. Better to keep the watch as a glanceable display and let the Bluetooth headset handle this chore, particularly now that the 4S is supporting BT 4.0. 

  • Diana Randall

    I think that’s just the point. No one DOES wear a watch anymore.  However, Apple has NEVER done anything lightly.  When they remake it, they make it almost unrecognizable.  Maybe the shape, the size, the “concept” it almost there, but they take it to unknown heights in functionality.   Even it Apple never does make a watch, no one will ever make a watch like Apple could / would have. 

  • cardholder

    A wristwatch is not a bad idea. And I am looking forward to that.

  • Alex Boone Jr.

    I’ve followed and have been a fan of Apple products since the early 80’s.  The one thing I always loved about Apple under Steve Job’s management is that all their business decisions weren’t entirely driven by business sense but more by common sense.  They where always the leaders in innovative intuitive products for people, who broke all the traditional molds and paradigms.  For many of us who welcome the idea of an Iwatch (Smartwatch)  never saw it as a wristwatch at all. The IWatch is not a product for a new market it is practical smartphone accessory for an existing market, no different than a Bluetooth headset or keyboard.   Even before the introduction of Siri this concept made sense now with Siri even more so.  Will a smartwatch replace a Rolex? No and I don’t think any of us tech savvy people expected to.  I think it is sad when the old school business savvy becomes the experts on new school technology trends.  We build computers as small as a phone that  happens to allow one to make a call and we call it a phone, we build a computer small enough to fit on ones wrist that happens to tell time and we call it a wristwatch.   It’s thinking like this that will take us back to the days of the Pony Express.

  • Ash Chuan

    Siri-based iWatch sounds cool.  I’ll get one.

  • Richard Whitehouse

    TV? Possibly. Wrist watch? No.

    To make a reasonable mark up with a touch screen would require wrist watches to be raised in price hugely compared to the mass market. The content available would be limited and wouldn’t enhance Apple’s line up at all.
    The iPod Nano and a watch strap is the best you’ll do.

  • Chris Grava

    Good converstions no doubt, but here is a thought.  There SHOULD be a race, like the space race, for Apple to develop the iWatch  – it is the absolute next step to the future of interfaces to other devices.  Think Star Trek guys.  Short of simply being embedded under the skin, where else on the body would such device be worn?

  • JohnnyWalker2K1

    Wow, has The Pebble proven you wrong!

About the author

Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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