Essays on Technology and Culture

An Adjacent Possible iWatch

Most smartwatches don’t succeed as either watches, or smart devices. Fancy graphical displays and UIs drain battery and add bulk. Pushing a button just to get the time, or anything else, defeats the role as a watch. One workaround to the problem is using a low-quality screen, like the Pebble, that’s easy on the battery. That’s only enough to make it last a week. Finally, someone’s approached the problem from the other direction. The recently announced Withings Activité is an analog watch with a fitness tracker inside. It looks amazing, it lasts a year on a watch battery, and it’s even water resistant. It’s also going to retail for nearly $400, but it’s a start.

Sure, it’s not as versatile as a Galaxy Gear, or even a Fitbit Force, but it succeeds as a watch, and the Withings Pulse is a decent enough clip tracker that The Wirecutter is willing to suggest it. If the Activité’s innards are based on the Pulse, we’re off to a good start on the technology side. It’s the fashion side that really has me intrigued, especially after reading Khoi Vinh’s excellent essay on the role of fashion in wearable devices. If there’s one thing that unites the current crop of wearable devices, be it a fitness tracker, a smartwatch, or Google Glass, it’s that none are terribly attractive. The most aesthetically pleasing to me is the Jawbone UP24, which is a minimalist wristband. It succeeds as fashion because it’s about as invisible as you can get without being a clip-on device.

I own two watches: one is a Swiss Army analog quartz watch, which I wear for dressier occasions. The other is a Casio F–91W, the choice of discriminating terrorists. I wear them, yes, as fashion, but also for utility. It’s still easier to look at this thing on my wrist to check the time than it is to pull my phone out of my pocket and tapping the sleep button. No matter how complicated the innards might be, the surface purpose of a watch, as technology, is simple: show me the time. That level of simplicity and focus will help define what becomes a mainstream device, should wearable devices catch on. Craig Hockenberry’s theoretical iRing hits on this just a bit. Combining Apple’s existing flair for minimal designs with an equally minimalist set of functions would allow them to make a simple device. If it has to be a watch, why not just put it under the surface of a decent quality, simple, quartz analog watch? It’s not crazy—we know Jony Ive already likes analog watches.

One of Apple’s tricks is that, while they do sometimes drop something as mindblowing as an original iPhone on us, most of their new products are just a push into the adjacent possible. They combine a lot of pre-existing technologies with a knack for aesthetics and UI that other companies miss, and they often do so in ways that seem painfully obvious in hindsight. Truth is, if it really were that obvious, we’d all be wearing analog watches that are also smart pedometers and wrist mounted notifications for our phones. Or something else we hadn’t thought of. When, or even if there’s an “iWatch,” it’s going to be something that executes on an existing set of ideas in a new way that won’t be obvious at first. We’ll feel the impact later. Especially when the price comes down.

Until then, if anyone wants to let me borrow $400, I’ll totally pay you back.