Is It Time for iTime?

The tech press was abuzz this week with rumors of an Apple watch. The watch would feature Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity, have its own app ecosystem, and ultimately begin the transition toward wearable computing. Analysts speculate that Apple could enter this market in 2014.

But is it really time for iTime? The major sticking point is what functions a wearable computer will provide over a pocketable computer. First, it seems necessary for the watch to pair with a phone. There’s no way to pack all the computing power into something so small and maintain reasonable battery life. Users are then walking around with two computing devices, whereas previously they had just one. (This could obviously change, as batteries are getting smaller and more powerful, and processors are using increasingly less power. But ditching the phone completely seems much farther off than the release schedule predicted by analysts.)

Next, it is necessary for the watch to replace functions on the phone, such that wearing the device is convenient in some way. Ultimately, this requires the watch to provide both visual and aural feedback. The visual part is a given, as the watch will obviously feature a display of some type. But how big must the display be to be functional? Too small and the watch is severely limited in capability; too big and the watch doesn’t work on many people’s wrists. Not even the trend of chunky watches can overcome the awkwardness of a 2.5 inch display strapped around someone’s thin wrist.

Aural feedback presents a whole new problem. Perhaps the watch could be equipped with a small speaker, working like the much-desired Dick Tracy walkie-talkie watch. (Oh, how I wanted a set of those when I was about 7!) This could allow interaction with Siri in some situations. But when it comes to noisier environments or interactions that need a little more privacy, like a phone call, there needs to be some other way for the watch to provide aural feedback. If the device is worn on the wrist, there is no way that wired headphones can be used comfortably, unless the person isn’t moving their hand. Instead, an additional Bluetooth link will be needed–linking the phone and the watch, and the watch and a headset. This sounds like an awkward setup at best, and makes the watch superfluous, as an audio-only interface could perform many of the same functions.

What about the functions themselves? The obvious advantage to a watch is that it can be checked with a glance at the wrist, much less conspicuous than pulling out the phone. But aside from displaying information (say, the contents of a text message) or relaying simple commands (say, accepting or rejecting a phone call), the watch isn’t likely to do much else. Remember complaints about iOS before it had multitasking? People said you couldn’t do anything with it because it wasn’t easy to switch between applications. iTime would have this problem multiplied by a small display.

The best user scenario for such a product is someone who is interacts with a lot of people using her phone but who has to leave her phone in her bag or pocket. Though I can’t think of a type of person who actually fits these criteria, the person sounds like some kind of superuser, not the average consumer. While some people may continue to feel that having a phone out in social situations is rude, social norms are changing rapidly. It is generally not considered rude to have phone in hand. And norms regarding using the phone while engaged in conversation with someone else (which most people still consider rude) cannot be overcome with a watch.

What does Apple need to do to make the product appeal to a mass audience? The product must create its own category of functionality. Rather than acting as an external display for the iPhone, the watch needs its own set of apps that can link with iPhone apps or function on their own. Fitness is an obvious category, given the success of products like the Fitbit and Nike Fuel Band. But that’s not enough to prompt most people to buy. Apple will need to think of functionality beyond acting as a remote control for a phone. Other “smart watches” are entering the market. Expect Apple to keep an eye on their success and functionality. When someone gets it right, or there’s an obvious opening for something better, expect Apple to act. But current conditions suggest now is not the time for iTime.

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