iWatch: Setting expectations for Apple's next wearable

According to prevailing rumors, Apple will not only introduce the iPhone 6 next Tuesday at their annual September event but their new wearable device as well, commonly but perhaps not correctly referred to as the iWatch. There's a lot of excitement around the idea of something new from Apple, perhaps unreasonable, unsatisfiable excitement at this point. That leads to huge expectations and an equal and opposite amount of expectational debt. So, let's pause for a minute. Let's take a breath. And let's take a look at what we can reasonably expect from Apple's next wearable.

Wearables past and future

Apple has been making wearables for years. They called them iPods, specifically the iPod shuffle and some versions of the iPod nano, and let you clip them to your pockets or, once, strap them to your wrists (with the aid of third-parties). But those iPods ran Pixo for their OS, and were chained to USB and iTunes.

This is the age of iOS and of iCloud. Traditional iPods as they exist today — Apple's wearables as they exist today — have no future. They sell less and less every year as people gravitate towards the iPhone and iPad, which does almost everything they do far, far better than they do. Everything save wearability.

Strapping an iPhone to your body, much less an iPad, isn't every practical and isn't very fun.

New product categories

Apple has been at the forefront of mainstreaming new computer technologies.

With the Apple II they put the command line, along with programming languages like BASIC and apps like VisiCalc, into the home. The Mac evolved that. It brought graphical user interfaces, along with desktop publishing and HyperCard, into design and education.

With the iPod they brought digital music, and the iTunes Store, to the masses.

With the iPhone they made a multitouch platform that put the web and apps into hundreds of millions of pockets. The iPad evolved that, offering a bigger screen to allow for a higher class of app.

It's possible the Apple wearable — I'll keep using the name iWatch from here on out as a convenience — will join that list. It's also possible, however, that it will instead broaden it instead of lengthening it. The iPod touch and iPad are previous examples of this. They're expressions of the same core technology as the iPhone but with different priorities to better serve different needs.

The iWatch could easily be multitouch made wearable. Just like the iPad expanded the screen, the iWatch could shrink it.

It's also possible it will replace something on the list, make it fresher instead of longer. Apple has been making wearables for years, after all. They called them iPods, specifically the iPod shuffle and some versions of the iPod nano, and let you clip them to your pockets or, once, strap them to your wrists (with the aid of third-parties). But those iPods ran Pixo for their OS, and were chained to USB and iTunes. Apple is a great example of a company that doesn't mistake its products for its business. iPod is a product. Selling wearable electronic devices is a business.

The iWatch could easily be regeneration. Just like the iPod touch brought the classic into the age of iOS and iCloud, so the iWatch could do with the nano.

It's also possible it will enhance the list, make it deeper instead of longer. The Apple TV is a previous example of this. It's okay on its own but its true value is how much better it makes the iPhone or iPad in the context of the living room.

The iWatch could easily be an ecosystem enhancer. Just like the Apple TV made the living room and media better, the iWatch could make on-the-go and logging, control, alerting, and authorizing better.

And, of course it's possible Apple could accomplish all three of those things — multitouch made small, iPod made online, and ecosystem made yet more valuable — all with the iWatch.

Whether that constitutes a new product category or not is something better left to the pedants, box checkers, and sensationalists that will no doubt argue it for the next year or more. The important thing is that it be good.

The long game

Good is, of course, a moving target. The original iPhone and iPad were both good, however neither were as good as they are now. The original iPhone had no App Store. The original iPad had no camera. Neither had iCloud. Both will be getting Extensibility this year. If you look at the 2007 iPhone and then the iPhone 5s with Touch ID, or the 2010 iPad and then the iPad Air with Retina display, the evolution is obvious but profound.

Likewise the Mac over the years. Likewise the iPod. Apple doesn't release products, they launch product lines. They plan and work years ahead, and race forward just as fast as technology and business allows.

That'll no doubt be true of the iWatch as well. The display could be sharp as Retina. The sensors could track new and interesting things. The way it interfaces with mobile payments could be cool as hell. But it will, all of it, be first generation. It'll be new in every sense of the word. It'll be as amazing as the original iPhone and iPad were when we first saw them years ago, but only a step towards the iPhone and iPad we have today, years later.

The power efficiencies of the battery, the thermal requirements of the chips, the size of everything from the transistors to the sensors will all determine how long the battery will last and how much the computer inside can really do. For now.

All this means is, as they've done in the past, Apple will likely focus on a few key features, polish and showcase those, and leave others totally unaddressed until future generations.

Just like the iPhone, we'll see the iWatch do some amazing things. Just like the iPad, Apple will make a case for why something else deserves to exist. There will be features that are deemed to be better than what a phone can do, or a phone can do alone.

It can't be everything, but it'll have to be enough.

A thousand no's

There likely won't be on-board LTE on the first iWatch. Or laser beams. Neither of those things seem practical given power and thermal requirements. In other words, people will want the battery to last more than an hour and not have the wrists burned while wearing it. It also won't be round. Or a triangle. Neither of those things are optimal for non-watch features. In other words, it will be to a timepiece what an iPhone was to a call receiver.

I've previously elaborated on my expectations before, but here are the short version:

  • Logging: Collecting sensor-derived health and fitness data via HealthKit.
  • Controlling: Serving as an interface for accessories, especially home automation, via HomeKit.
  • Authenticating: Making, for example, mobile payments via PassKit (or whatever Apple replaces PassKit with).
  • Alerting: Relaying priority notifications.

Like shuttle craft to the Enterprise or Vipers to the Galactica, however, the iWatch will likely be a forward-deployed device to the iPhone, at least at first. It'll get the information collection and presentation out of our pockets and onto our bodies, but it will need that pocketed device to serve as its connected, high-capacity hub.

It'll have BlueTooth LE and perhaps NFC, but it'll need to tether for anything fast or long range. And it will need to race to sleep — to get its communications done and its processors powered down — and fast.

Battery life, after all, is challenged by screens and radios. Absent screens and radios, the battery would last for days. The bigger and denser the screen, the more power is needed to light it. The more communications, the more power is needed to connect it. There is no magic to be found here. Apple is extremely good at optimizing for current battery technologies but cannot cheat the sciences behind them.

It'll need those screens and that connectivity though. It'll need to sync with the Health app, after all. It'll also need to get data into and out of its own apps, and iWatch App Store Apps. It won't need to run Infinity Blade, of course, but it'll need to run all the interfaces for all the logging, controlling, authenticating, and alerting.

If it can those things, or at least a few things, simply, elegantly, and delightfully, it'll be enough. Wearables aren't as mature as phones or tablets. Pinch-to-zoom moments will still matter here. The rest can come over time.

Fashion statements

Fashion is the big wildcard here. Apple has invested heavily in fashion. They're recruited heavily from fashion. They've invited the fashion industry to the event. But what is fashion when it comes to consumer electronics?

The iPhone, especially from the iPhone 4 on, have been iconic objects of design, as impressive as any Braun or Leica that inspired them. What, beyond that, could fashion bring to an iWatch? Colors, materials — these are things Apple has already explored in their iPod line.

Even if Apple were going for a classic watch that sacrificed computing potential to tradition, it's hard to see where the focus on fashion would play out. The iPhone has already gone gold, after all.

This, fashion, more than anything else, the event alone will tell.

Market madness

Regardless of what the iWatch does or doesn't do, there'll be two places it'll face heavy push back — Wall Street which will expect iPhone 6-size sales the first weekend, of course, and those members of the tech press from whom both the iPhone and iPad were ill-advised, boring, or both.

Realistically, the iWatch won't be another iPhone-sized business for Apple. Nothing will. Not for Apple, not for anyone, not for a while. Could it be an iPad-sized business, though? A Mac-sized business? An Apple TV-sized business? We'll have to wait and see. How many people want a wearable times how high a margin Apple can sell them at, and how fast Apple can grow both over how short a period of time will answer that question, at least over the next few years.

The iWatch will also be an Apple product. Focused. Opinionated. And maddening to those who want Homer Simpson's car.

The metric that will really matter will be this — do the people who buy it derive value from it? That's the metric that took Apple from iPhone to iPhone 3G and ultimately iPhone 6. That's the metric that took Apple from iPad to iPad 2 and ultimately to iPad Air 2.

Once the noise of the market and the media dissipates, that's what's going to be fascinating to see, both this year and over the next few years to come.

Your iWatch expectations

That's what I'm expecting from the iWatch — something that brings multitouch to wearables, iOS and iCloud to the iPod (even if indirectly), and greater value to the iPhone I already own, something that starts off small, focused, and opinionated but improves relentlessly over the next few years, something that may make wearables mainstream, but won't replace the iPhone as Apple's biggest earner any time soon.

So now it's your turn. What are you expecting to see from the iWatch — or whatever Apple ends up calling their wearable? What features and functionality will it need to earn a place on your wrist?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.