Disclaimer: All opinions discussed herein are personal and are not shared by my employer. Obviously.


What Would Jonathan Ive Do?

Smartwatches are a niche proposition, and while more companies pile on, the usual refrain is that wearable technology will only enter the mainstream if Apple produces one. Given the company’s justifiable reluctance to leap into new, untested and low-profit markets, there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see an iWatch. While I don’t believe that we’re likely to see one announced for a long time yet, we’re all reasonably sure that Jonathan Ive and co. have at least kicked around the idea for one in his secret design lab.

With that in mind, however, I decided to partake in a little thought experiment. You see, I’ve taken a look at plenty of wearables on the market, and not a single one has convinced me to ditch my 2005-era Fossil. Perhaps it’s because none of them do the job I think that they should do. As such, I sat down with pencil and paper, putting myself in the place of Jonathan Ive in the hopes that I could design my ideal wearable.

Look and Feel
I have a preference for round-face watches, but it’d be near-impossible to design a circular touchscreen. Not only are they much harder to mass-produce, but imagine the nightmare of user-interface design that’d greet you at the other end. As much as I’d prefer a device that echoes the Omega Seamaster (my ideal timepiece), let’s find a more practical solution to this problem.

Like my inspiration, however, I’ve turned to Dieter Rams to help me solve the problem. Braun’s BN0042 (pictured in the photoshop above) is smart, with a stylish square face and a restrained, not-obvious design. The MotoACTV has already proved that such a form factor works in the real-world. The only thing that I may consider changing is to make the strap join seamlessly with the body as I’d consider thickening it up to make extra room for the battery.

While Ive’s pursuit is always for clean looking devices, the negative consequence is the shoddy battery life devices like the iPhone are stuck with. A brand new iPhone 5 running iOS 7, for instance, gets me about 12 hours of use before I’m reaching for the lightning charger. There are wrist-straps available, for instance, for the Nintendo DS, which can hide a 1,500mAh battery rather discreetly. I imagine that, with a little engineering savvy, it’d be possible to hide half that figure in the strap without making it egregious to wear. Given that the FuelBand has a 70mAh battery and the MotoACTV has a 258mAh cell, if we could squeeze in 750 in the strap and 750 within the case, we should have enough juice to last us a full day.

What Not To Do
Like every armchair Ive, however, one must begin with a manta of “focus” and a single-minded desire to avoid feature creep. Ergo, everything that can be omitted from the design, should be. Here are some of the things I don’t think this device should do:

  1. Be a surrogate display for my phone
If I want to read an email, there are very few occasions in this world where I can’t just pull out the handset and read it in full. In a scenario where it’d be impolite to whip out a phone, it’d be just as rude to stare at your watch. If we’re being honest, there’s no need for an intermediate device to exist between me and my smartphone, as it doesn’t solve a problem.
  2. Make Cellular Calls
    Why? Battery life, battery life and battery life. Size is another biggie, but I think the watch should be Bluetooth and WiFi only for some very clearly obvious reasons.
  3. Respond to emails
    In my opinion, second to a desktop / laptop, the easiest mobile device to use for email is a 7-inch tablet. Small enough to accompany you on the loo, big enough to make typing easy. There’s no way that, unless you’re using dictation, there’s going to be any value in including an email client to your wrist.

What It Needs To Do
Watch, Calendar and Alarm Clock
This device falls at the first hurdle if it isn’t, at its heart, a damn fine watch. Now, with a TFT display, you can have a timepiece that’s tailored to your whims and needs, letting you download new faces at a whim. One thing that it’ll need to do, however, is have a self-adjusting backlight (to maintain brightness while saving battery life), but also it’ll need to be on all day. Or at least use the same low-power tech found in Nokia’s latest devices so that, without pushing a single button, you’re able to see the time. All other watches manage to do this, and anything that makes telling the time more intensive than just glancing at your wrist needs to be eliminated. Also, I’m not very organized, so I’d love it if my watch vibrated whenever I was meant to be at an appointment — and it’d make a very effective alarm clock, too.
Activity and Sleep Tracking, Coaching
Sports and activity trackers are ten-a-penny, and I’ve never found one that I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with. The Nike Fuelband, which promised so very much, offers too little in the way of accurate data sensing. The MotoACTV, the most powerful, suffers from lackluster battery life and a cumbersome body. Devices like the Fitbit and Pulse, while useful, are additional pieces of hardware, rather than one that blends seamlessly inside my life.

Therefore, my fantasy watch would come with a pedometer, altimeter, magnetometer, gyroscope, GPS and GLONASS. This is to ensure that I’m getting always-on fitness data when I’m both indoors and outside. I would like to see, in future iterations, a heart-rate monitor that’ll connect to my skin on the underside of the device, but for now, that’s a little to fanciful. Every 24 hours, or the next time I’m connected to WiFi, the device would push all of this info to a website for tracking, and you could even share your data with your doctor or HMO.

Naturally, since you’re getting all of this data fed in, you’d think that the watch would also be able to offer coaching and suggestions for how to be more active. In the same way that the Jawbone Up v.2 vibrates when you’ve been idle for too long, this should be suggesting and helping you reach goals for fitness and weight loss.

Since I’ll be using this device as a GPS tracker to help me get around, I also want to use it to help me navigate strange places on foot. What I’d love to do is to be able to download mapping data for foreign locations, so it’ll guide you around streets of foreign climes. Since you don’t need the directions to be as nuanced as in a car, you could even have the screen just displaying an arrow pointing you, compass-style in the right direction.

While inputting postcodes would be labour intensive on such a small display, there needs to be a way to ensure that you can independently input data without having to rely on a paired smartphone. That said, if you do have a phone with you, it should be as easy as three button pushes to get the location from your phone to the watch.

Now, Nokia’s offline mapping data for the UK and Ireland takes up 365.5MB of space, so I’d conservatively allocate 1GB of the watch’s internal storage to keeping your mapping data safe. If you’re journeying beyond your home location, then you can swap out the data as your needs see fit — ensuring that you’ll never get lost wandering around a foreign country if you don’t want to.

Music Player
I love only needing to take one device with me when I go running, which is why the MotoACTV is such a tempting proposition. By adding a music player, you can leave your hugely expensive smartphone at home, avoiding damage and presenting less of a target for muggers. Flash memory prices have fallen to the point where 8GB would be easy enough to throw in, long enough for even the slowest of marathon runners. Naturally, they would be accessed by a 3.5mm headphone jack port running alongside one edge of the device, and the headphone cable would need be a little longer than some on the market, just to provide you with a little more freedom when running.

FaceTime Phone
Yes, I opened this piece by saying that this device didn’t have a cellular modem or a phone. I don’t believe a watch should be used to make calls, because I can’t imagine too many people wanting to add a watch to their family share plan, or from a power management perspective. Then you’ve got the problem that people would be constantly bellowing at their wrists, making everyone’s private chats public announcements. Then you have to think about the carbuncle of a camera that juts out from the strap of the Galaxy Gear, which is both ugly and adds to the creep factor. That’s why there’d be no outward-facing lens on my watch.

But then, look at how small the forward-facing camera on the Galaxy S 4 and iPhone 5S is. I started to think about how a short burst of a FaceTime call would both make me feel like I’m in Inspector Gadget and also, that there could actually be some value in a FaceTime / Skype device. There are some issues that we’d have to overcome, i.e. there isn’t enough screen real-estate for you to preview your picture and have a proper UI, but I could see a very plausible scenario where you can make short, quick video calls while paired to your phone.


So, there you have it. This is my watch, and if I had my way, I’d announce it tomorrow and charge you all £199 for the privilege of owning one. Unfortunately, it’ll remain a fanciful proposition until either Apple dives head-first into the space or some enterprising engineer thinks that they can turn this fantasy into reality.


3 responses to “WWJiD?

  1. First I’d say you’re spot on with what this should NOT do: which is be a mini-iPhone. Unless we commercialize micro-cell fusion in the next year I wouldn’t expect such a crazy thing.

    People familiar with the matter have suggested more of a bracelet than a watch, however. Keep in mind new routines can be created by great products. Pepsodent, Febreeze and eggs for breakfast are just a few examples. Who says it *has* to be a watch just because it attaches to the appendage where we usually put watches? Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?

    Back to your points:
    – Battery life would likely kill a FaceTime component, but maybe not…
    – Eliminate wires! Why not bluetooth headphone support? Apple has pretty much gone as thin as possible with the latest nano, and the headphone port is a limiting factor. Apple is all about blowing past those 😉
    – Contacts will be key, IMO. While you won’t have a cellular radio in the watch, making a call could be easily done by speaking into the watch — look for a resurgence in ear-based bluetooth headsets, I’m afraid
    – No GPS in the watch, also a battery drain. I do believe this will be a device that can live without a smartphone, but it will make a smartphone (well, the iPhone specifically) “sing” with new features.

    Some stuff a lot of people haven’t hit on:
    – Context. A device attached to a limb can, especially in conjunction with the phone (usually on a desk or in a pocket), provide a LOT of context clues. This is key when you want to get in your car and have your bluetooth earpiece activate… or whatever.
    – Feedback loop. The alarm is a key thing, as you point out. Calendars will be huge with this device, but I still expect the display to be minimal. So consider a clever way to remind you without necessarily using a ton of screen space.
    – Less watch, more jewelry. This is part of that changing habits thing, but I truly think we’ll see more wearables that break out of old patterns and establish new ones. I already take care with my fitbit as though it were my wedding band (easier now that I’m divorced, but…). As we get more accustomed to wearing gadgets, the concern of whether this is a concern will vanish…

  2. For me, the idea of something like this would have as few features as possible in order to maximize battery life and fashion potential. The reason I like the Fuelband even though it doesn’t do a whole lot is because the style is there, it does enough, and it’s cool watch. Plus, Nike’s return policy is top-notch (you can return/exchange Fuelbands forever). That said, the Fitbit Force is also a.. er.. force to contend with (Sorry about that).

    I think in order for wearables to take off, the look and feel is an absolute 100% must. Regardless if it’s a watch or a bracelet, it needs to be lightweight, durable and reliable. It needs to be slim and pretty enough for vain people to wear. This is perhaps harder than most people realize — I find most smartwatches (everything from the Pebble to the Gear) to be much too big for my girly wrists. But then I also understand the importance of having a decent sized screen for messages and things like that.

    So, if it were me designing this thing, I’d do away with the traditional idea of a screen entirely. I’d probably go more towards the Fuelband, the Fitbit or the Misfit Shine, with a huge emphasis on durability and simplicity. Tap a button and you can see the time like the Fuelband. It can buzz or vibrate as a reminder for an appointment or as an alarm. If you do need navigation, maybe pair it with Bluetooth headphones that’ll tell you whether to turn left or right. (or maybe it can have simple arrows like a compass). But I even think adding navigation/GPS to it is too much. I have my phone for that, after all.

    In the end, that’s the problem here. What do wearables offer that phones do not? The answer appears to be portability, quicker access to information and the incorporation of sensors like heart rate and so forth for data-hungry nerds like myself. But is that enough for most people to embrace? I’d argue no, and that until wearables are able to attain that “looks super cool and does cool shit” metric for the masses, it’s destined to be a niche product.

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