Apple Watch is just a placeholder

Some future version of the watch will be the robust tiny computer with seamless input/output (I/O) we’re all looking for.

watch complications hero print

This one looks good, but it'll be a while before it does everything we want it to

Credit: Apple

I was sailing the other day (we’ve had some great wind here in southern New England this spring) when the raison d'être for the Apple Watch hit me right between the eyes. I was sailing a 15’ Mercury Sloop, which is a reasonably stable boat, on a small lake in the area. The thing about the “Merc,” as they’re called, is that it has a mainsail and jib, but no block and tackle. So, you’re holding the full weight of both sails in your windward hand while maintaining direction with the tiller in the other. You can see where this is going. In a stiff wind, you have zero hands left over.

At one point, I was juggling my iPhone, two sheets (the sail ropes), and the tiller, trying to have a conversation, look at my calendar and not hit the rocks all at the same time. It came to me that there might be a market for a hands-free smart device. Like the Apple Watch.

Then, I remembered a conversation I had about the watch with Tim Bajarin, the guy who put the “creative” in Creative Strategies. He told me the watch as we know it today in the marketplace is just a placeholder, something to try out some new capabilities and ways of using a highly portable smart device. Someday, a much better device will replace this first version, and everything will begin to make sense.

[ Find Apple Watch on Amazon *What’s this?* ]

I’m certain he’s right, first of all because he’s one of the few analysts who actually knows what Apple is doing (the rest of us just speculate), but also because this type of development follows the trajectory of Steve Jobs’s philosophy in a pretty direct line. Go back decades in history, and you find a young Steve Jobs, sitting at the feet of Bob Noyce (an Intel co-founder), taking in the wisdom of Moore’s Law. What Noyce imparted to Jobs was that the transistor budget would follow a path toward more, smaller, cheaper and less electricity-hungry over time — by orders of magnitude. At each new level of capability, a new set of device possibilities would open up. It was just up to the device makers to put them together.

In that sense, the iPhone was born as a concept way before it was possible to build one. And Jobs’s genius was to watch silicon and other subsystem developments (e.g., display, memory, I/O) and bring out a product at the exact moment when it was both technically and economically feasible. To wit: the iPad. When Microsoft introduced its tablet concept in 2002, components were still too expensive, heavy and large for it to succeed. By 2010, when Apple introduced the iPad, all that was ready to go.

So, each new generation of technology enables a real computer in a smaller form factor. The smart watch is just the next smartphone.

Back to the boat. There I am with my phone between my teeth, trying to undertake some modern Internet activity. I’ve got a nice Plantronics Bluetooth headset, which means I can leave the phone in my wet bag (which keeps things like electronics and wallets dry in case you capsize) and still receive calls. And I can even make calls if I can get Siri to cooperate (she’s learning but is still a little daffy at times). But it’s hard to check a wind speed app without the touchscreen, which means risking the phone going in the drink every time I want to use it in even a slightly sophisticated way.

The future is arriving by teleportation, not all at once but a few molecules at a time, all reassembling themselves in the present moment. We already have the form factor — the watch. We’ve begun the usage model — not Dick Tracy exactly, but some combination of that, smartphone-like tapping and swiping, and voice.

The key is I/O — getting things into and out of the device. A device is always better if it’s smaller with the exception of I/O. Smaller means less screen real estate and less area for entering queries or data. That’s where Siri and other new technologies like contextual awareness come in. Once Siri reaches the point where she can handle most verbal input accurately, you no longer need to touch the device. If the device is on your wrist, you can glance at it and see a big number the represents wind speed. Or you can have her whisper it in your ear. Contextual awareness lets the device proffer only the information you need in a compact format. Freed of the I/O conundrum, devices can just keep getting smaller, smarter and longer-battery-lifed at a reasonable cost.

I have yet to buy an Apple Watch, and I probably won’t for quite a while. I’m waiting for the real one. No, not the one rumored to come out later this year. The one after that, or maybe after that. The one I will rely on when far away at sea.

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