Some hefty rumors have been tossed around lately about a smartwatch project supposedly in high gear at Apple. Smartwatches are the James Bondian ideal of high tech--a wrist-based gadget that can sync with your phone (or not), display information, play music, or...well, do stuff other than tell time, basically.
Until now, they have all sucked. They have been ugly and bulky and garish and overcomplicated and difficult to use and expensive and awful. I have no idea if Apple is actually building one; I wouldn't be surprised at all if they're working on one, but I have no insider information from sources familiar with any sort of project like that. But! I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea, if Apple would just do these five things.
The iPhone is a good-looking phone. There are a few other good-looking phones, too--HTC's 8X for Windows Phone and the One line for Android are nice--but the majority of smartphones, even the good ones, range from ugly to inoffensive. That doesn't matter so much with a phone, because it's often in your pocket anyway, and even though yes, it can be a fashion statement, it's a tool first and foremost. A watch is jewelry, so it needs to be very handsome above all else.
Apple's current aesthetic--glass, aluminum, monochrome--could work for a nice, simple, minimalist watch. That won't be to everyone's taste, but it'll be to a lot of people's taste. More than Samsung's cheap rounded plastic, Motorola's hypermasculine sharp angles, or HTC's adequate oval blobs, anyway. The Pebble Watch, a smartwatch that made about a bazillion dollars on Kickstarter, is about as good-looking as it gets--Apple can do better, I think.
Size is also very key with watches, much more than with phones, which can vary from a 3.5-inch iPhone 4S to a gargantuan 5.5-inch Samsung Galaxy Note. Smartwatches often end up oversized--big watch-faces, and very thick. Apple would do better to either keep it small or offer two sizes, because a watch that fits Kristen Bell won't necessarily fit Lebron James.
There needs to be a reason you're wearing a tinier, less capable version of your phone within three feet of your actual phone. Which means it can't just be a conduit for information that's already on your phone--it needs to offer something new. The Basis Band, our favorite fitness tracker, does this really well. It has a perspiration tracker and an optical heart rate sensor, two things a pocketed phone can't have, since a phone isn't in constant direct contact with your skin. A fitness-tracker smartwatch can add to your digital experience, not just mirror it. And presumably there are ways to go even further--could a smartwatch monitor blood pressure? Blood sugar, for diabetics? Body mass index?
We're not used to charging our watches. It's weird and you'll forget to do it. We might get used to it, eventually, the same way that we got used to charging our smartphones every night just after we'd gotten used to charging our candybar Nokias twice a month and our (now digital) books once a month. But you'll want to be wearing your watch all the time, so a smartwatch has to last for much longer than a smartphone. I'd say you shouldn't have to charge it more than once a week--once every five days, at the most. The Basis Band needs charging about once every three or four days, which is fine but not quite enough. Perhaps it can harvest a bit of kinetic energy from the user to supplement its battery? Or temperature differential? Who knows!
And here's the most important part. Most smartwatches try to do too much. This one, for example, is an entire Android phone crammed into a device that makes for a monstrously large watch and a ludicrously small phone. It looks absolutely awful to use! In fact, I'd say that a good smartwatch should do very, very little. It should have a button to show the time, an up/down button to scroll through notifications, and, really, that's about it. It should not have any way to enter text. Entering text on a watch would be a horrible experience. Remember, the whole point of this is that your phone is still in your pocket or bag--the watch would just be a quick at-a-glance notifications screen. Keep it as simple as possible. If you're not sure if a feature should be in it? Take it out.
You'll use your smartphone to control your smartwatch, because, as we already established, the smartphone is an excellent, capable tool, and the watch is a mere conduit. That means the app has to be simple to use, but full-featured enough to handle everything the smartwatch can do. I would actually look to Samsung, of all companies, for this one--the TecTiles app on its Galaxy phones, which controls how the phone interacts with NFC-enabled stickers, is just about perfect. Super simple, just a grid of features you want the watch to do. Easy!
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.