With Apple’s first smartwatch set to be reintroduced next Monday, and with a wealth of wrist-competing alternatives unveiled at MWC this week, it could be time for early-adopting interested parties to think for a second about what future Apple Watches may bring in time.
Don’t worry, we're not going to pretend we know what the next generations will be, that would be silly. But the questions are interesting to ask – and Apple's track record leaves a lot of clues to its future.
But first some basic assumptions. Many assume it will match the annual release cycle of the iPhone and iPad, but that’s a dangerous assumption to make. For one thing, with the first gen hitting in April, it’s well away from the traditional peak period for gadgets at the end of the calendar year. It’s not a given that the Watch would follow the same pattern of spiking in sales around Christmas, but it’s likely, and not least because it’s easier to give a watch as a gift than a smartphone yet Apple’s iPhone sales always jump in the Christmas quarter.
To capitalise on this, we usually see the iPhone and iPad updated in plenty of time for the ramp-up to the spending frenzy of Christmas, but it’s highly improbable that the Apple Watch will be updated for this Christmas – even though it’s at the start of a new product’s life that it has to iterate most quickly in order to add "missing" features. It might make sense for Apple Watch 2 to hit in September 2016, then – in time for Christmas, but also after a longer cycle since the first generation.
This longer time both feels right – rapid development might be at odds with Apple's yearned-for premium fashionista qualities – and would give the community of developers and partner companies some breathing space to work out what the Apple Watch actually is and what limitations there are that need to be addressed in a future version.
Indeed, we’re even assuming that the Apple Watch will have a regular upgrade cycle. It might be every year or every two years, but it might be quite unpredictable, or not at all. Apple shareholders no doubt wouldn’t like that, but it doesn’t seem out of character. Would Apple really launch into a new sector if it didn’t think it had a future path? Will we get completely upgraded innards, or just new straps and a firmware update? All these questions remain to be answered, but here are the likely ways they'll go…
1.) Better Battery Life
The first Apple Watch will need to be charged every day, which is disappointing whichever way you cut it. But it’s probably a bit naive to think this will get dramatically better in the second, third or fourth generation. Partly this is just engineering; if you want the Watch to be capable then it will use a lot of power, and today’s batteries still struggle to supply enough of it. And what’s more, if there’s pressure for Apple to make it even more capable – by, for example, letting apps execute natively on the phone rather than it relying on a tethered iPhone – then the pressure on the battery will get even greater.
There are some things Apple could do, though. For one, the biggest drain on a device like this is likely to be the screen itself, and Apple could switch to a different technology. It’s unlikely to be e-Ink, as with the Pebble, just because it’s too slow, but there’s always Mirasol or perhaps a more power-efficient screen technology we don’t even know about.
It might also be worth exploring kinetic charging. Now, to be sure, it’s at least possible that kinetic charging wouldn’t be able to charge a future Apple Watch on its own, but what it might be able to do is to slow down the rate at which the battery depletes. Yes, a kinetic charging component might be a little bulky, but the Apple Watch case at the moment is quite thick so it might be possible to shrink down some of the internal components to make room for it. There’s solar, too, but that strikes me as even less efficient, or even exotic solutions such as graphene that can generate power just by being heated.
Still, it’s unlikely that the difference would be dramatic – maybe in the order of two days rather than one – but remember this: at least with the iPad and iPhone (if we ignore the outlier that is the iPhone 6 Plus), Apple has kept the battery life pretty much the same through the generations. The batteries have sometimes gotten bigger, sure, and yes, Apple has made huge strides in eking out as much performance at the lowest power cost it can, but in practical terms, anyone who used an original iPhone moderately heavily in 2007 had to charge it every night, and would have had to have done the same with every generation since.
In other words, Apple seems to decide on a battery life figure and then work around hitting that.
2.) Sleeker Looks
While prettier than a lot of smartwatches, the first Apple Watch still looks a little like a chubby first-gen iPhone compared to something like the Withings Activité. And while some folk still miss how the original iPhone felt in the hand – especially compared to the super-skinny iPhone 6 – there’s no doubt that many prefer their wearable computers as slim and light as possible.
But it’s going to be tough to shave much from the bulk of the first design, especially if Apple wants to improve features or battery life. One thing in the Watch’s favour is that if Apple does leave a longer period between versions, any advances it makes in miniaturisation, power efficiency and integration will appear to be even more dramatic; if you jumped straight from the iPhone 3GS to the iPhone 5, the change in thickness would blow your mind.
It might be foolish to expect Apple to "finally" switch to a round face, though. It’s not impossible, sure, but it’s a safer bet that Apple has decided that a square (or at least oblong) screen is the best option for delivering information.
While plenty of people assume that Apple will eventually have to make a cheap version of the Apple Watch in order to sell enough – we don’t yet know the prices of the full range, but it’s not inconceivable that the Edition range will sell for several thousands of dollars – I wouldn't hold your breath. Withings may have recently unveiled the Activité Pop to complement its three-times-as-expensive sibling, but it’s operating in a different market. Apple cares much more about revenue than unit sales, and it also likes attracting a kind of high-paying (you might say profligate) customer and encouraging, if not literally locking, them into its interdependent ecosystem. However, what a second Apple Watch will do is bring down the price of the first-gen ones, which would be ncie.
4.) More Connected With GPS, Wi-Fi and/or 3G
The power demands of any of these are huge, so it's not exactly surprising that the first version of the Apple Watch doesn't have them when you consider Point 1. The first Watch needs to be tethered to an iPhone for pretty much anything. Sure, the fitness tracking works untethered so you don’t have to take your iPhone running with you – although without GPS you can’t track routes – but even the software executes on the iPhone; you can think of the Apple Watch as just remote screen.
It’s not completely improbable that the Apple Watch will cut the cord and implement its own data connection and app execution in future, but it will take a big shift in the market. As more and more people get more and more comfortable with depending on a wearable computer, and transition from using a pocketable computer to a wearable one, it could conceivably provoke innovation in the way transitioning from desktop to pocket computers did.
5.) Native apps
That is, apps running on the Watch rather than a connected iPhone. It's already possible, but it comes at a big cost in terms of capability and demands on power, and depends on those macro market forces – or Apple having it demonstrated to it that there are compelling use cases for the Watch that can’t be done with the current system of running the apps on a tethered iPhone.
Besides, the situation with how apps "run" on the first Watch is a technical distinction rather than a usability one; you can still have completely custom third-party apps apparently running on your Watch, so a comparison to the App Store-less original iPhone is misleading.
6.) Android compatibility
Crazy talk, I know, but it’s not impossible that Apple will allow its Watch to work with competitor platforms. For one thing, there is precedent: the iPod, which was Mac-only in its first iteration, quickly added Windows compatibility. In that case, not only did the move mean that Apple could sell the iPod to a much bigger market segment – which would hold true even if not to the same extent currently for Android – but also that the ‘halo effect’ would draw people to Apple who might never have considered it before.
However, because the Apple Watch is so strongly dependent on a connected iPhone – so deeply technically enmeshed with it – some radical changes would have to be made, and it might be that Android "compatibility’ only arrives if the Apple Watch becomes the kind of more independent device described above.
7.) Something We Don't Know Yet
With any new class of device, companies can have a damned good try at getting it right first time, but it’s never possible to anticipate either what all the uses cases will be for it nor what the public will demand. Basically, Apple will be carefully monitoring how people use the first-generation Apple Watch, and how developers, partners and accessory makers innovate with it and push its capabilities to the limits, to show them where to go next.
So there are the questions we’re asking ourselves about the Apple Watch 2, 3, 4 and beyond. What do you think the answers are? And are there other questions we should be asking?
[Featured image credit: edited from Shutterstock/Wowomnom]