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The Watch Punt

When the iPad was rumored, but before it was unveiled, I worried about how Apple would face an obvious physical challenge that plagued every other prior tablet: What would be its main text-input method? I predicted:

I don’t know what Apple has in mind for the Tablet, but they nailed it with the iPhone: after decades of clunky, awkward, mediocre pocket computers, I think it’s safe to say that the large touchscreen is the best input mechanism for them.

But the decision isn’t nearly as clear for a slate-type device with a 7-10” screen, which most people assume to be the Tablet’s form factor. There doesn’t seem to be a good solution. No device in this category has ever even been close to good. …

I see two possible outcomes: either Apple has come up with a radical new input method for this form-factor that will overcome the fundamental problems that made every other similar device suck, or the Tablet isn’t this form-factor. … I predict the new-input-method solution. I have doubts that such a product could be as much of a replacement for general-purpose portable computing as John [Gruber] predicts, but I’m wrong a lot.

Of course, I was completely wrong. Apple punted on input methods. The iPad had only a bigger version of the iPhone’s on-screen touch keyboard, and Apple did the best they could with it.

That referenced John Gruber article proved much more accurate and raised more tough questions:

I have a thousand questions about The Tablet’s design. What size is it? There’s a big difference between, say, 7- and 10-inch displays. How do you type on it? With all your fingers, like a laptop keyboard? Or like an iPhone, with only your thumbs? If you’re supposed to watch video on it, how do you prop it up? Holding it in your hands? Flat on a table seems like the wrong angle entirely; but a fold-out “arm” to prop it up, à la a picture frame, seems clumsy and inelegant. If it’s just a touchscreen tablet, how do you protect the screen while carrying it around? If it folds up somehow, how is it not just a laptop — why not put a hardware keyboard on the part that folds up to cover the display? … If it’s too big to fit in a pants pocket, how are you supposed to carry it around? And but if it does fit in a pants pocket, how is it bigger enough than an iPod Touch to justify existing? And so on.

But there’s one question at the top of the list, the answer to which is the key to answering every other question. That question is this: If you already have an iPhone and a MacBook; why would you want this?

The epigraph I used to start this piece — the bit about Steve Jobs demanding that a tablet be useful for more than just reading on the can — indicates that Apple will release nothing without such an answer. I agree that such an answer is essential.

Reading that article, and the challenges it presents, is pretty humorous today. (Go read the rest. There’s much more.) Gruber was right about almost everything, including the challenges the iPad would face to justify itself. Apple punted on a lot of those questions, too.

We now have both 7-inch (roughly) and 10-inch iPads: those are indeed very different, but neither size is good enough to be the only size. You can type with all of your fingers, but only in landscape, only on the big iPad, and just barely; or you can type iPhone-style with only your thumbs, but really only in portrait, and mostly only on the small model.

The iPad does indeed need to be propped up to watch video, but you need a case that folds into or extends a stand, which is clumsy and inelegant, and only really works at one viewing angle and only on very stable surfaces. These cases also fold up to protect the screen in transit, but are distinctly not laptops — except some of them, which have keyboards, but not mice, to clumsily and poorly approximate a laptop.

It’s too big to fit in a pants pocket, needs to be carried in a bag, and isn’t replacing laptops for everyone.1 Rather than replacing anything en masse, it’s mostly just another device to buy, accessorize, carry, charge, sync, maintain, and replace every few years.

Many of us buy it anyway because it does enough things well enough, and it does some things much better than other devices. But those real-world tradeoffs hinder it from being the near-perfect, all-consuming device that most of us expected of it — and that smartphones and laptops both are.

*   *   *

In the months leading up to the Apple Watch, we had high expectations. We also recognized that a “smartwatch” had serious design challenges and limitations.

Electronics-heavy watches have always been big, ugly, and geeky. Many people simply don’t want to wear a visible computer on their wrist all the time, preferring to keep their technology more subtle. Even if you get past that, the physical design is full of impossible tradeoffs. There’s barely any room for text or buttons even on large watches, and fashionable watches are often much smaller, especially for women. Radios and high-resolution color displays need much more power than you can fit in a watch with good battery life, but a smartwatch without any radios is barely useful, and any smartwatch without a high-resolution color display looks primitive and ugly. There’s no room for much touch input, and a watch with more than a few buttons and dials looks ugly, but a smartwatch needs many possible inputs to navigate its far more complex and numerous features over a traditional watch.2 And for all of that, smartwatches to date have mostly been primarily to show notifications from your phone.

The ideal smartwatch would have a high-resolution, color, self-illuminated but not too bright, highly visible yet completely subtle screen that’s always on, but isn’t tacky and doesn’t draw much attention to itself from others. The screen must be as large as possible so you can read and touch it nicely, but as small as possible so it isn’t ostentatious and doesn’t look out of proportion on a wrist. This screen, and all of the other components, must use as close to zero power as possible because the battery needs to last at least a week (ideally much longer), weigh as little as possible, and occupy almost no space.

So it needs to be bright, dim, bold, subtle, large, and small, with a battery that lasts a month with zero mass, and some compelling everyday applications beyond telling time and showing phone notifications. The true design challenge isn’t making it pretty — it’s making it good.

Seeing other smartwatches fail at these impossible challenges, many of us assumed that Apple had to be working on something different for their “wearable”.

Maybe a flexible screen wraps all the way around the band, or the entire band is a battery, or it’s round, or it has a brand new kind of screen, or it has no screen. Maybe it’s not a watch at all. If it is a watch, it won’t emphasize timekeeping. Apple must be doing something radically different from the other smartwatches we’ve seen.

We can’t tell you what that might be, of course. We have no ideas that are actually realistic and practical to make. But Apple must know something we don’t, right?

Nope. They don’t. It’s a watch. And it’s very similar to other smartwatches we’ve seen — just executed far better. (We hope.)

Apple didn’t find a way around the laws of physics. They didn’t somehow unveil a revolutionary battery or screen technology that the world had never seen before. They punted again. In the absence of any better alternative approaches, they just did what they could with today’s technology.

It’s kinda big, but the touch screen isn’t big enough for good touch input and can’t fit much text or UI. It seems fashionable enough, but it’s unquestionably electronic-looking. It’s about as thick as it could reasonably be, but the battery only lasts a day. And the primary functions still seem to be telling time and showing phone notifications.

This shouldn’t be a big surprise, though. This is what Apple usually does.

And during that wave of predictions right before the iPad was announced, when we were all wondering how Apple would do “something” new or different to somehow make the perfect tablet, John Siracusa got it right, of course:

There’s also the popular notion that Apple has to do something entirely new or totally amazing in order for the tablet to succeed. After all, tablets have been tried before, with dismal results. It seems absurd to some people that Apple can succeed simply by using existing technologies and software techniques in the right combination. And yet that’s exactly what Apple has done with all of its most recent hit products—and what I predict Apple will do with the tablet.

Despite our frequent expectations to the contrary, Apple rarely comes up with major solutions that nobody else could think of. “Apple” is just a bunch of people like us, and if we can’t think of a great way to solve an impossible problem or tradeoff, they probably can’t, either.

What Apple does best is take established ideas, build upon them, make good design3 decisions along the way, and execute well. It’s what they did with the iPhone and iPad before, and it’s what they did with the Apple Watch.

It’s disappointing that they didn’t achieve the impossible, but I can’t really fault them for that.


  1. For some, sure. ↩︎

  2. The difficult balance between buttons, dials, features, and modes with usability and style has always plagued traditional watch design, too. Quick, how do you reset the lap timer on the once-ubiquitous Timex Ironman 731? (hint↩︎

  3. In the the “how it looks” sense and the “how it works” sense. Good design isn’t just one of those: it requires making good calls on the countless decisions and tradeoffs, big and small, along the way. ↩︎

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