The Watchmaker, the iWatch, and the Future of Computing

Once upon a time, there was a marvelous device called a watch. The first such devices were built in the 16th century, not long after the earliest mechanical clocks. The need for portable clocks was obvious to many even early on. Why was there a need, who was this important? Because the first clocks requiring precision needed that precision for navigation, not simple time keeping.

Time could be kept by watching the sun, moon and stars, but navigation replied on determining where you were in an east to west manner based on the difference in time between a central location (Lisbon for instance, or Rome, or Greenwich), and the time the sun, moon, and stars showed. This was easier and more useful the smaller the time keeping device got.

Clocks and watches have always been a point of major innovation, from the weight balances to mainspring based clocks to screws to quartz crystals. The accuracy and precision, as well as the durability, were constantly being reworked and improved. Watches moved from a device hung from the neck to pocket watches to wrist watches.

It wasn’t long ago when almost everyone carried a watch, mostly wrist watches. It is interesting to note just how fast this faded to the point where very few people carry them now. There’s a reason for this. That reason is the smart phone. If we’re carrying a miniature computer with a built in clock along with us anyway, what is the need of another device to keep time for us?

Consider that point for a minute. The merging of the phone, the watch, and the computer into a small device we almost all carry with us that is far more powerful than much larger computers even a decade or less ago is significant. The phone function became secondary, despite the continuing name. And smart phones are used by people more for keeping time than any other function. The needs that gave rise to the watch and kept it around for almost half a millennia still remain, just we use a different device for that function, a device that provides communication, reference, and various different functions as well.

The watch died quickly, but the need for it did not. If I ask you what time it is, or if you’re running late, your immediate action will show that. You will likely reach for your phone to find the time.

But time is by far not the only purpose and need that our smart phones provide. They are, of course, a phone, though this aspect has dropped off some from the days of pure cell phones with no advanced features. Voice calls are very much still important, but we spend much more time on average with text based communication, and video calls are increasing in popularity and availability, and have been for a while now. We also use our phones to look things up, find places, and for many other uses. The finding of places of course harkens back to the early purpose of the precision clock and watch, namely, navigation.

But the smart phone, and also tablets and other mobile devices have a draw back in that they are a separate item, not something attached to you like a wrist watch or like a pocket or other watch that is attached to your purpose. It is a device that you might drop or misplace, something that wasn’t a fear with most watches. Watches are wearable technology, even way back in the 15th century. Cell phones, smart or not, are not.

Google approached this by taking the ideas of a smart phone and putting them into the doe so glasses, Google Glass. It is attached to you, so you are unlikely to drop or misplayed it. But a wearable device can’t function like other devises, because it must take up less space, and because it is likely in a position where smart phone type input won’t work. Google addressed with by using voice that eye controls, a hands free approach.

Many criticize Apple concerning their new offering, the iWatch, or, as the actual release name was given, the Apple Watch. The detractors say it will fail because people don’t want to wear watches. It is pointed out that people no longer do, that the concept is obsolete. I disagree with them.

Firstly, I would argue that the watch isn’t obsolete, just that with the carrying of smart phones that do all the functions of a watch, the watch is redundant. The Apple Watch on the other hand does many more things than just what an old style wrist watch does. It isn’t the creation of a traditional watch, it’s the creation of a new product in the form factor of a watch.

Second, it has been built as an extension to the iPhone, allowing you easy access to certain applications and alerts without having to pull out your phone. Hence rather than being a separate device that might be redundant, it compliments the existing products.

Third, the Apple Watch includes health sensors, allowing you to team it up with your iPhone for exercise monitoring and similar uses, giving it a practical use outside traditional watches.

Fourth, the Apple Watch has band trade out and replacement options, allowing you to use it in different applications, not just on your wrist. This helps bridge the gap for those not wanting something on their wrist, especially in exercise contexts.

Fifth, Apple has engineered a very unique interface that makes the small screen real-estate useable. This interface, with small gestures and one small knob on the side, I believe was the main intent of the product more than the product itself. This interface can be expanded to other small form factor devices, and I can see a lot of application in areas like smart home products, bicycle computers, monitoring and data collection platforms, and many other such ideas. I suspect the Apple Watch is only the first product to use this interface, and success or fail, the research and the future application will make the money Apple spent on the Apple Watch worth while.

The Apple Watch is of course not the first smart watch or multi-function watch. Many of us will remember the watches with tiny keyboards a decade or so back, and the Motorola Moto 360 and the LG G Watch, among others, are currently on the market. But I think the Apple Watch will go beyond those and bring the idea of wearing a watch back, just this time a much more functional one that will pave the way for other devices.

One additional point, the Apple Watch will include Siri, which gives you a smart watch you can ask questions and control with voice. This gives a lot of potential and brings to mind images of the communicators in Star Trek and similar scifi shows. If this portion also is expanded to the applications I described for the interface above, this could have far reaching effects on technology and the future of computing.

~Bethany Davis
Caer Illandria Enterprises

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