Late last year, I started wearing a Pebble smartwatch every day, and I love it1. There are a bunch of things it can do, like help me find things on Yelp, but mostly I just use it as a display of notifications from my smartwatch (iPhone 5S) and, of course, to tell the time.
People love talking to me about my Pebble, and I frequently get asked what sort of wearable device (smartwatch, “iWatch”) I expect Apple to release, and when. The truth is that I don’t know what Apple is going to do, even though I worked at CNET and even though I follow the internet, mobile and broader tech scene with some interest.
For a long time, I expected that an Apple wearable probably wouldn’t happen. That was because I’d seen the wristbands that people used to turn an iPod Nano into something like a watch. It just didn’t make a lot of sense to me that this was the direction Apple would choose for a (hypothetical) wearable product. I felt like it failed as fashion (you wouldn’t wear it most places if you wanted to look nice) and as technology (battery life, battery life, battery life) and as a functional product that solves a problem (we’ve already got smartphones, so…).
My take was that Apple saw the “iPod Nano as iWatch” approach and said No! and they saw the Pebble approach and said No! and that they couldn’t easily see another approach, so they put their focus in other directions.
Then a few months ago, a man named Craig Hockenberry wrote a post on his blog about Apple wearables, suggesting that Apple won’t make an iWatch. His ideas were circulated widely in the tech blogging and podcasting communities. You should go read that piece. I’ll wait for you to come back.
Ok, welcome back. Hockenberry made a few excellent points, and these points weren’t necessarily new. Unlike others before and after him, however, he didn’t start by asking about a watch, decide that Apple wouldn’t create a watch, and then drop the discussion. He still thought there was an important product market justification and technological ability for an Apple wearable device that was not a watch.
To make it brief, he contended that Apple’s wearable would be an iRing.
I’ve been turning this idea around in my head for a while, and I think it’s really strong. To support it, Hockenberry says a smartring could have a very limited display, vibration for notifications, small size and weight, appeal to fashion-conscious customers, sensors for what he called Healthbook and what we now know is called Healthkit and the Health app, very low power use and charging via Lightning cable, no competition from companies like Samsung who are rushing to make smartwatches because that’s what they think Apple is going to do, a relatively low cost, and iBeacon support.
There are just a couple of areas where I’m inclined not to agree with Hockenberry.
Smart wearables and fashion
I’ve never worn a ring, and there are a bunch of good reasons for that: I’m not married2; I’m not a woman; I’m not a varsity athlete or graduate of any academic institution for which wearing rings is common; I’m not particularly fashionable in that weird European sense. It would be kind of odd for me to wear a ring.
And even if I were married and wore a wedding ring, it would still be odd of me to wear a second ring. Western men basically expect that men who wear rings are doing it because they’re married.
Whereas Apple didn’t have to convince anybody that carrying around a mobile phone is a terrific idea, they’d have a much harder time with rings. They’ve been successful before at getting people to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t have done (Macintosh, iTunes store, &c.) but these tended to be wide open product categories (nobody was selling personal computers with a GUI, nobody had come up with a good way to buy music online, &c.), rather than redefining an existing category by making it “smart” or “digital.”
Now let’s say Apple did make an iRing, and let’s say they did manage to sell it to a lot of people. Would you wear your iRing on a job interview? What about to a wedding? Would it be waterproof and sandproof enough to wear it to the beach? If you worked in construction, would your iRing be able to withstand the stress and rigors of your job? If you were in the military and the amount and type of jewelry you could wear was highly proscribed, would the iRing pass muster? I don’t know, but in at least some of these cases, I doubt it. Apple makes some beautiful looking gadgets, and the iPhone is a wonder of industrial design, but even if the iRing looks as good as that and better, and even if the iRing is as strong as that and stronger, there are going to be a lot of situations for which it just won’t be appropriate.
So what’s the big deal if people have to take their iRings off sometimes? The big deal is that the whole point of the iRing is that you’re wearing it all the time.
Charging your smart wearable
My iPhone 5S doesn’t last a day without being charged3; my iPad needs to be charged every day or two; I’ve worked on my MacBook Air for many hours without charging it, but I doubt it could go a whole day. But my Pebble watch regularly goes a full week without a charge. When its battery finally dies, just a 30 minute charge can give it enough juice to last most of a day. Pebble is a rock.
But still. The value of a connected wearable device is in constantly wearing it. Taking it off to charge it doesn’t just mean that I’m not benefiting from it in the time that it’s charging; it means that its overall benefit to me is diminished.
Moreover, the makers of Pebble wanted to make their watch fully waterproof so that I could wear it in the shower. To do this, they needed to use a special type of magnetic charging connector that is quite awkward to use, much more expensive and takes up a ton of space on the side of the watch.
If Apple creates an iRing, there are going to be a lot of unanswered questions about battery life and charging. Rings are much smaller than watches, which means much less space for batteries inside, which means shorter battery life, which means more taking it off to charge. And if it’s going to get charged at all, it will need to have some kind of connecter that will take up a ton of space.
The fashion problem and the charging problem are why I think there’s a chance that Apple might not create an iWatch or an iRing, but rather something like an iBattery.
What, then, is an iBattery? Well, it’s a watch battery and more. Watch batteries come in standard sizes, and Apple’s iBattery would come in those same sizes. Watch batteries are pretty inexpensive and get changed every couple of years; iBatteries might be three to five times as expensive and get changed twice a year. Watch batteries do only one thing: keep your watch running. iBatteries would do a lot more things: they’d vibrate for notifications from your iPhone, contain sensors for Healthkit (at least a motion sensor, and probably others) and recognize iBeacon.
Most importantly, an iBattery would be functionally invisible, thereby completely obviating the entire fashion discussion: you’d be able to wear it inside almost any watch of your choice. Also, rather than worry about battery life, the whole thing would be a battery. And it would also keep your watch running.
There are a lot of reasons to believe that Apple won’t do an iBattery. For one, they’ve hired a lot of fashion executives and a lot of people believe that this is to help them navigate the launch of their wearable. John Gruber, who is in the business of being right about Apple where others are wrong, writes that Apple will release a wrist wearable thing in September 2014.
iBattery is an unlikely approach, but in a way, very elegant. I think it would be an intriguing idea, both totally Apple-like and totally un-Apple-like in really interesting ways.
The Pebble was one of those rare gifts that was totally unexpected, since I had only heard of it in the vaguest way, despite having just worked for CNET for two years, and totally fitting, since who would enjoy a smart-anything more than I would? ↩
Jewish men don’t traditionally wear wedding rings anyway, though I suppose they can if they want. ↩
My iPhone could go a day without charging, but I opt to jailbreak it and install a tweak that lets me run certain apps in the background all the time, which drains battery life considerably. ↩