On the Apple Watch watch

If, in your world, Apple’s actions are as intriguing as those of characters in a critically-acclaimed premium cable series, you’re well aware that the company is viewed by many as technology’s Great Brushed-Metal Hope. Not content with record-profits and unholy amounts of treasure, you and your ilk demand of Apple life-changing gewgaws and doodads that must be delivered every dozen fortnights like clockwork.

During the past two years, the life-changing thingamabob du jour was an Apple TV. Not the set-top box that we know now, but rather—as promised by respected pundits and analysts—a for-reals TV with the Apple logo carefully fused to the front. That TV would finally deliver the a la carte content we’ve prayed for, in amazing resolution and fidelity, all the while floating in air like a heavenly specter.

Regrettably, that device has yet to materialize, and even respected pundits and analysts understand that two years of getting it wrong does very little for one’s future credibility. Rather than admitting that they haven’t a clue as to what Apple’s really up to, they shift to the new next thing. And that new next thing appears to be an Apple watch.

Like the Apple TV before it, evidence of that watch’s someday existence relies on hazy rumors from overseas manufacturing plants, the idea that watches are the thing because smart watch projects are appearing on Kickstarter, and because enough noise has been made about the thing that those running the Wall Street Journal and New York Times feel they’ll look less like stodgy-old-poops-representing-a-dying-media if they weigh in on it.

Given that such a device may be yet another result of the Apple Vapors, let’s step back for a moment and examine just how necessary an Apple watch is and whether it makes sense for the company.

Hourly hopes

People speculating about an iWatch have desires that range from the practical-but-not-terribly-exciting to the engagingly impossible. Naturally you’d be able to tell time with it and change its interface—pull up either an analog or digital look (in a variety of styles) and change its background. If you wanted a smaller secondary display that showed you the current time in Torgny, you could choose it in a preference.

The iWatch would also be able to alert you to an incoming call broadcast from the iPhone in your pocket, show text messages (or portions of them) sent to that same iPhone, and signal alerts for upcoming events. We’ll call these the I-didn’t-notice-these-things-happening-on-my-iPhone-in-my-pocket-or-purse features, which places it firmly in the iOS accessory camp rather than as a standalone powerhouse.

More outlandish speculation that elevates an iWatch to far more than an accessory focuses on a we-don’t-really-know-who-Dick-Tracy-is-but-that’s-totally-what-we-want device. This watch would support FaceTime so that you could make and receive video calls, act as a remote that mirrors and controls your iOS device’s interface, and offers enough storage that you can slap a full day worth of music on your wrist (capable of playing media over Bluetooth for your car and wireless headphones).

The practical versus Pollyanna

Assuming that Apple wants to make a watch (which, honestly, no one outside Apple can know), it’s worth considering what’s both practical as well as how the watch’s design would play out.

The outlandish iWatch is easily torn down on both fronts. In order for Apple to produce a watch capable of acting as a video phone you’d need not only a built-in camera, Wi-Fi and cellular circuitry, and a display large enough to discern someone’s facial features, but also a hefty battery to support all those capabilities. Battery technology has come a long way, but the kind of breakthrough that would allow you to produce anything along these lines other than a very large and ungainly watch has yet to be realized.

If Apple’s going to produce a watch that isn’t a brick strapped to your wrist, the mirrored interface is out of the game as well. If we use the previous version of the iPod nano as a model (the sixth generation nano that could be worn as a watch with the aid of a watchband accessory), you can have a few icons on the display—few enough that you can tap on the watch’s face with the expectation that you’ll hit the correct target. That would provide you with access to any apps the watch carried, but wouldn’t supply enough room for the body of an email message or even a long text message.

Now, imagine going smaller still. There’s a reason Apple didn’t offer that nano as a watch by default. My guess is that Apple’s designers realized that it was too bulky to be a practical fit for everyone. Instead, it sold it as a standalone device and let customers who wanted to use it as a watch do so. Those who chose the watch path understood what they were in for and had no one to blame but themselves if they found it an imperfect timepiece.

Leaving us where?

Strip out the dreams and what’s left? Other than any media capabilities crammed into the thing, I believe we’re back to a watch that acts as a remote notification center for your nearby iOS device. In short, an accessory.

And that makes me question whether such a device is necessary and whiz-bangy enough to launch an entire new product line. I honestly don’t think so. Rather, it makes far more sense to me for Apple to take another shot at a wrist-mounted iPod. Make it smaller, design it specifically for the wrist rather than as a “well, if you really want to” afterthought, market it as a media device that just happens to awesomely connect to your iPhone for alert functions, and you’ve given people a compelling reason to reevaluate the need for yet another iPod.

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