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What was not said about the Apple Watch

Apple Watches

So the keynote just ended. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were about as expected. Other than the obvious screen resolution and battery differences, it seems the only functional difference between the two is Optical Stabilization for photography in the 6 Plus. Apple Pay is a great solution for payments that Apple has already gotten many large retailers on board for, something it seems they are uniquely capable of doing. I don’t remember other companies getting that kind of traction from the stay with a new payment method. The real announcement of the event was, however, the Apple Watch.

Some things about the watch which are interesting:

  • The Digital Crown is a great user interface coup for Apple. Being able to navigate through some features without ones fingers blocking the screen is important for such a small screen.
  • There is some intelligence in the messaging app that allows it to suggest answers to texts which is really interesting if it works. i.e. if You receive a text asking ‘Do you want to get Sushi or Burgers for lunch?’ it should be able to suggest Sushi and Burgers as quick-response options.
  • Apple is clearly leading in physical options for their watch. They offer two screen sizes (38mm and 42mm), three materials in two finishes each (Stainless Steel, Space Black Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Space Grey Aluminum, 18K Yellow Gold, and 18K Rose Gold), and numerous watch bands. Pebble’s Steel bracelet, or Samsung’s recent offering of a Swarovski crystal band for their Gear S smart watch, seem amateur in comparison.

Apple Watch Finishes

  • Apple did not offer a round screen. I didn’t really expect they would, as it is a very inefficient use of screen real estate, even if it does look good. There are plenty of traditional watches that are rectangular, not round.
  • The watch seems to have a fairly sophisticated heart rate sensor on the back on the watch, and very good integration with their Health app, and through that all HealthKit-connected apps.
  • The reliance on other sensors in a connected iPhone, and the requirement to have an iPhone, are disappointing.

The presentation does leave some gaping holes it the description of the watch and its capabilities. Here are a few, in no particular order:

  • Will the watch support connecting to Bluetooth devices such as headphones?
  • How does the watch connect to the iPhone? WiFi? Bluetooth?
  • The Maps app was heavily shown in the presentation, but does the watch need to get GPS from the iPhone?
  • Unlike some competitors, the watch band connection is non-standard. Will Apple be allowing third-party manufacturers to make watch bands?
  • Apple showed the watch being used to make a payment with Apple Pay at an NFC terminal. When paying with an iPhone the user needs to authenticate using TouchID. How does the user authenticate on the watch? HeartID? or is the watch nearby the phone, both which are registered with Apple, considered a form of authentication?
  • How long is the battery life? If the watch needs to be charged with a magnetic dongle stuck to the back of the watch, how long does that take? I guess you’re not tracking your health, or sleep, while that is going on…
  • Is the watch water-resistant? Enough to take it into the shower? To go swimming?
  • Which sports can be tracked using the new Fitness app?

Overall, there are some very impressive things about the watch, and a few disappointing things. We don’t know everything yet, as the watch won’t be out for several months, but it seems a few downsides are clear:

  • You will need an iPhone to use the watch. Presumably to use GPS features like maps, and also for Apple Pay.
  • There are not many health sensors in the watch, or at least they were not discussed. Angel doesn’t need to close up shop before their launch.
  • Charging the watch is going to be an issue. They haven’t said how long the battery lasts, but it seems if you want this to replace a fitness band that can track your sleep, it probably won’t be able to do that while it charges.

That doesn’t mean they won’t sell a gazillion of these things (or that I won’t be one of the people buying one), but it does mean that there are definitely niches available to other companies, and definitely room for other companies to innovate. Wearables that track fitness and sleep and whose batteries last a week have a place. Wearables with multiple sensors like Angel have a place. Certainly companies that can solve the charging problem will have a strong differentiator.

The game, it seems, is still afoot.

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Asus ZenWatch and Sony SmartWatch 3
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On the brink of an Apple wearable

Moto 360 and LG G Watch R
Moto 360 and LG G Watch R

Back in April I wrote a post titled One Wearable to Rule Them All? Not likely. predicting where I thought the wearable market was heading. My basic idea was that there are essentially three types of wearables – the all-in-one, the single-purpose, and the multi-position.

The all-in-one is where the smart watch category is headed. These wearables will look like watches, have sensors to track many different health issues (steps, motion, heart rate, temperature, blood oxygen, etc.), and be able to assist in authentication and commerce. This is in addition to an array of information-realted apps, and an optional link to your smart phone.

The single-purpose is best represented by fitness bands that track health data or bands like the nymi that can be used for security applications. These bands are almost always worn on the wrist, and are focused on a single application. These wearables can be wholly replaced by an all-in-one wearable.

The multi-position is a variation on the single-purpose, is usually focused on health, but can be worn in several positions, such as your wrist, your ankle, etc. and be used for many sports such as running, biking, swimming, etc. The best example of this is the Moov, although wearables like the Sony Core and the Fitbit Force are moving in a similar direction. These wearables can’t be easily replaced by a wrist-worn wearable such as a smart watch, although some aspects of what they might be done better by an all-in-one.

In April the first Android Wear watches had already been announced, but had not all shipped yet. The flagship of the early announcement was clearly the Moto 360, Motorola’s round-screen smart watch. That only shipped in the past week or so, and immediately sold out online. Selling out sounds great, but I suspect it is more about constrained manufacturing than success in selling their wearable.

In the intervening months other Android Wear watches have been announced, several in the past couple of weeks in the lead-up to Apple’s presumed announcement of their entry to the wearable space (in just a couple of hours as I write this).

Asus ZenWatch and Sony SmartWatch 3
Asus ZenWatch and Sony SmartWatch 3

Sony released the SmartWatch 3, now based on Android Wear. Samsung seems to have rushed the announcement of their Gear S watch, which has a curved screen and health functions, but has no release date in the US any time soon. Asus announced their ZenWatch which has one of the most refined looks of any of the Android Wear watches. Perhaps the most interesting is the LG G Watch R, which competes directly with the Moto 360 as a round-faced watch. The LG G Watch R is a major improvement on LG’s earlier announced G Watch from April, with the round face, metal bezel, water resistance, health tracking, etc.

Interestingly, the G Watch R is the first Android Wear watch to have a completely round face, as the Moto 360 has a small portion of the bottom of the round face that has no screen. Motorola has argued that in order to have a fully round face, you need to add a bezel around the edge. LG indeed did need a bezel, but turned lemons into lemonade and made the bezel similar to those on metal sports watches, giving it a traditional look that no other smart watch currently matches.

Google has been hard at work trying to add features to Android Wear, the operating system all of these watches are based on (except the Samsung Gear S, which runs Tizen). Future releases of the OS will support connecting to other Bluetooth devices such as headphones, support GPS (although I don’t think any current hardware has a GPS chip), and will amusingly support easier-to-build watch faces. Even so, there are some gaping holes across the Android Wear ecosystem such as a unified health tracking system and commerce/authentication features.

The Elephant in the Room

The_Elephant_in_the_Room_Banksy-Barely_legal-2006
Elephant in the Room, from the Banksy Barely Legal art exhibit in 2006

Apple of course is strongly suspected to be launching its entry into the wearable space, and even when leaks surround the next iPhone have been more numerous than for any Apple product I can remember, there has been almost nothing leaked concerning Apple’s wearable, generally called the iWatch, but for which even the name remains unknown.

It is suspected, however, that Apple will tick off almost all, if not all, of the features I predicted back in April in their wearable. In particular, it is expected that the Apple wearable will support commerce applications, and will introduce NFC-support in order to do so. Apple already announce their HealthKit framework for supporting health sensors and applications, and it is expected that the Apple device will contain many sensors to drive HealthKit applications. It goes without saying that Apple has taken on the issue of the user wanting the wear their device, and if LG currently holds the title for most refined-looking smart watch briefly, that is likely to be lost quite soon.

So here is us, at the raggedy edge, waiting for Apple to announce their entry. If they support gps, payments, health and authentication, will all current smart watches be immediately obsolete? Perhaps not, but the elephant in the room will be stepping on a lot of current contenders for the smart watch throne.

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