Here’s Andy Ihnatko’s best guess about the iWatch [if it’s really called that]

SHARE Here’s Andy Ihnatko’s best guess about the iWatch [if it’s really called that]

This time a year ago. | Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This is my last chance to write about an Apple wearable device while such a thing is still merely hypothetical. Any remaining speculation, rumors, or other such inventory MUST GO today, because Apple will almost certainly show its cards on Tuesday afternoon.

All I’ve really got left is this rumor: “Apple’s design team is, according to my source, ‘offended’ by the visual distraction that a display would inflict upon the aesthetic of the device. Therefore, users will read notifications from the front of device by tasting it. This concept has received full support from senior management, who see this as an elegant way to ensure that families and corporations will buy one unit for each user instead of sharing. Flavor contexts are still being fiercely debated and are not expected to be locked down until just before the Sept. 9 keynote.”

I have to guess that this was just something I made up. It’s been a long summer. Expectations of an Apple wearable have been high, and solid rumors on what it might be, exactly, have been practically nonexistent. All we have to go on is the intriguing diversity of hires that Apple has made in the past year. Experts in health, fitness, the marketing of watches, and the marketing of pure fashion have left lush, successful careers at prestigious companies to become Apple employees. Nike, for reasons that shouldn’t seem the least bit mysterious, has walked away from a line of fitness hardware that’s seen plenty of commercial and popular success, and announced that it’ll be refocusing that part of the business on the software and services side of things.

A crystal ball in need of Windex

Otherwise? Hell if I know. Hell if anybody knows. Here we see how good Apple is at keeping a “real” secret. Information about upcoming iPhones is usually in widespread hands by the month of the announcement. That’s due to the porous nature of a major international product launch; too many people need to know too much for this to stay a secret. And I have no doubt that Apple occasionally tries to both take advantage of the hunger for rumors as well as control the damage that rumors can do but “salting” some information here and there.

But I haven’t seen a single credible rumor about the iWatch. Nothing but the sort of speculation to which I react by thinking “Interesting if true” and then don’t bother to write down.

This, friends, is a SECRET secret. Apple is good at keeping those. When you’re brought into the circle on an Apple project like this one, Tim Cook swabs your arm with alcohol and personally injects you with an encapsulated neurotoxin. “The enzymes in your blood will begin to dissolve the nanocapsules on Sept. 12,” he says, with a disarming smile. “You’ll receive the antidote on Sept. 10.”

Phil Schiller leans forward. “Assuming there’s no … unpleasantness,” he says.

You and Tim laugh. Phil’s expression doesn’t change. You look to Tim, concerned. Tim moves to the next item on the meeting agenda.

The smart thing for a commentator to do in this situation is to either do what the TV psychics do and utter SO many predictions that by the time the truth comes out, you can pick out the correct one and hope that everyone forgets about the rest, or keep mum.

I can only serenely point to the Macworld column I wrote in 2011, in which I insisted that it was time for Apple to start thinking about making a watch.

If you’ve been reading my columns for years and have suddenly realized that your investment firm needs to hire me into a mid-six-figures analyst position, please stop reading after this sentence, which I end by letting you know that I can be reached at ai at andyi.com and if we can get this going ASAP that’d be great because apparently my car has some kind of suspension problem with the left-front wheel that I need to fix.

To the rest of you: Yeah, I was mostly saying that Apple Design is so emphatically interesting that I’d love to see what they’d do with a purely consumer item. Make me a $50 or $100 wristwatch whose best feature is that it was designed by Apple.

Why watches are tougher than phones

I guess I can still lay claim to prognosticative gifts because Apple Design will, indeed, be a built-in part of the appeal of the iWatch. The smartphone market has become lush with devices that are just as impressive as the iPhone. The iPhone is still the head-and-shoulders champ in one category, however: its style and presence. The iPhone is, dramatically, the first device in a group of phones that gets your attention and it’s the one you want to pick up and hold.

This is a significant feature for a wrist-wearable. The things you wear are part of the statement you choose to present to the world. The necklace that a woman puts on, the ring on a man’s right hand, even my thick sideburns … they’re all part of a user interface for the people who interact with you. Fitness bands sidestep this issue by trying not to be noticed at all. But a more ambitious piece of wearable technology will have to be compatible with the message that each of its millions of users — worldwide — desires to send about their identity.

I can’t help but think about the passion play I went through five years ago, when I decided to buy my first “grownup” wristwatch. In my fourth decade on this planet, I decided it was finally time to wear a watch that wasn’t defined by its range of electronic functions, or licensed from Lucasfilm in any way. I looked at dozens if not hundreds of watches and with each one, I thought “Nope. That’s not the sort of thing I would wear” until I found the Swiss Railway Watch by Mondaine.

(A few years after I bought it, Apple copied its face design for the iOS 7 clock app. Now THAT’s an endorsement!)

The ‘Andy Ihnatko talks about iWatch’ bingo card

I haven’t written any predictions about an Apple wearable because there’s so little that’s known. But I’ve been on plenty of podcasts where the topic’s come up, and each time, I seem to say the same things. Imagine being handed a bingo card with the following opinions, and dotting squares in mounting excitement as you listen to me go on and on:

1) I’m picturing something that looks more like a fitness band than a watch.

Apple has shown itself to be reticent about shipping a product or a feature that isn’t completely right, in its estimation. This is neither good nor bad; it’s just the way they choose to operate.

If Apple were to make a color touchscreen watch (which is what most people think of when they hear the phrase “smartwatch”) with a rich portfolio of features, they’d want it to be small, light, stylish, serve a clear purpose, and run for days on a single charge. That’s a tough order for any company to deliver, which is why I imagine Apple making something akin to a Super Nike Fuel Band rather than a Teeny iPhone.

Also: A whole generation has been trained to get the time from their phones. Even older generations are gradually choosing not to wear wristwatches. It might be easier to sell people a fitness band.

2) Apple won’t produce a wearable unless they can solve the gender problem.

Also fueling my “fitness band” theory: I just don’t see Apple making any product that excludes women.

The Samsung Gear or the LG G watch or the Samsung Gear Live were designed with such little apparent care for accommodating smaller-size wrists that they’re effectively for men only. The Moto 360 is a big improvement. But although it fits nicely around women’s wrists, the large, thick face makes a fashion impression that Tim Gunn would tactfully call “bold” and which Michael Kors (if he were still a “Project Runway” judge) would compare to one of the identity discs from “Tron,” though he wouldn’t be able to come up with the name of the movie and will quickly move on, as usual, to just trying to make the wearer cry.

If Apple makes a band, they can make either a unisex product or a range of styles to suit multiple body types and fashion needs.

3) The product will have a clear focus.

They’re not announcing a wearable because a wealthy eccentric uncle died and left them $30 million under the condition that they do that before the end of 2014. They’re announcing one because they’ve identified specific jobs that such a product would perform.

What would those be? I think the most important ones to Apple are: identity, location and fitness.

Identity: your iPhone, your Mac, or even the front door to your house (which uses Apple’s new HomeKit APIs) will unlock themselves automatically if you’re wearing an Apple band.

Location: a low-energy Bluetooth chipset in the band allows static devices in homes, cars, and offices to pinpoint your exact location inside a home, office, or store, despite your being indoors and/or drunk.Your Apple TV automatically pauses when you leave the room to get another Diet Dr Pepper from the kitchen. Many of these functions can be accomplished by the Bluetooth chip in an iPhone.

Fitness is an obvious one, and Apple is uniquely positioned to combine hardware design, services and thousands of developers together to finally make fitness into a fun and manageable task, instead of simple creating yet another way to guilt you into better health. Moreover, Apple’s the one company that can say “we want to make people’s lives better” with a straight and sincere face and helping folks live longer and healthier lives is right up their street.

Collecting motion and sleep data 24/7 is an important part of the health package. Running for days at a stretch is another thing that a conventional wristwatch with a screen has trouble with … and another reason why I lean toward the “fitness band” motif.

4) Whatever it is, it won’t be what it is with the first version of what it is.

Apple doesn’t launch a new category and then drop the mic to the stage and walk away. Whatever they show off Tuesday, it’ll intentionally only represent what they feel they can do well in 2014.

The first iPhone didn’t have apps, cut and paste, high-speed data, or many of the other basic features of practically all existing serious smartphones. But the features it had worked so well and made such a strong impression that there was an eager and increasing audience for the next iPhone and the one after that.

5) If the design isn’t 100 percent Apple-like, they’ll get creamed.

It’ll have to be sleek and amazing, without a single misstep of design. And that won’t be enough. It’ll have to enchant and delight. People are expecting — nay, demanding — to be swept away by this thing. They want to be the female lead in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. No, more than that: They expect to feel the same way about this wearable as congressional candidates pretend to feel about creating jobs and lowering taxes in their campaign ads.

No other maker of wearable tech is under so much pressure. Since the day the Moto 360 was previewed, it was lauded as the Android Wear watch “to wait for.” Even so, everyone anticipated that it’d take a year or so for the new product to find its feet.

If Android Wear watches will suffer in the comparison with Apple’s wearable, they’re also putting on a little bit of pressure of their own. For all of Android Wear and the Moto 360’s faults, it’s a feature-rich experience, as is the Pebble smartwatch. If the best that Apple can do is a $150 piece of jewelry that only does one or two things.

And that’s the bingo. But like I said — I’ve no idea what kind of wearable Apple’s going to show off.

I’m confident that Apple’s goal for Tuesday isn’t to show off a watch (or band or whatever). It’s to launch a whole category of products and a whole new business for the company. They’ll have something specific to announce, but the real message will be the series of products that will follow it, or even be released alongside it. How about earphones with integrated heart-rate monitors? How about a second, more stylish version of the original band? How about a basic technology platform that can be integrated into other designers’ sportswear, or even day-to-day clothing?

My pal Jason Snell has been joking about the wearable being a hat. Sure! Bring it on!

Apple, phase three

I feel like this week will mark another mile marker in Apple’s journey. They started out as a computer company. Then they became a consumer electronics company.

Phase three, as I see it, is for Apple to become a style brand. That sounds like a filthy term, but it’s more vulgar than when Apple dropped the word “computer” from its corporate name. They succeeded so well with their little revolution that laptops and desktops stopped being business machines and fetish objects for nerdy kids like me. They became true consumer products.

In the same way, Apple has created a unique design philosophy. Design is about more than how something looks; it’s about how something actually is, how people use and interact with it, and how all of that enables someone to manipulate and interact with the world around them.

So now, perhaps, Apple is choosing to apply those same humanist principles of design to more mundane and accessible objects. Or they’re at least willing to abstract themselves a little further from diodes and wafers.

It makes perfect sense to me that Apple would choose to define itself as a consistent, collaborative design philosophy that expresses itself through engineering. Don’t see the iPhone — see the thought process and the choices that were made in its creation. This design philosophy is what defines Apple and the new message could be less “the power to be your best” or “wheels for the mind” than “If you agree with how we see the world, come on by and let us show you some neat stuff.”

We’ll know for sure tomorrow.


What Andy Ihnatko learned at Motorola [and why Apple is freaking out right now]

Motorola fixed the thing that bugs Andy Ihnatko about the Moto X

What do Motorola, Timberland and the NFL have in common?

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