Apple’s wearable differentiator.

The more I think about the eventuality of an Apple wearable device (ugh I’m already sick of hearing the word), the more I think about what’s going to set it apart from the current crop of trackers, monitors, and smartwatches. Aside from the UI, one thing keeps coming up in my mind: battery life.

It seems obvious if you think about it. Apple’s entire device line in the past few years has–as it’s evolved–kept battery life increases front and center. The company knows that this is the one technology that isn’t increasing in the leaps and bounds it would like and continues to limit its vision for products. Between the MacBook line and iOS devices, huge advances are being made in extending the daily use of our devices, but we collectively keep running up against that wall.

The difference with a wearable device is that due to its diminutive size and proximity to the body, different methods can be applied to extending its useful daily life. I’ve got two thoughts on this, and I think they work in tandem. I’m not saying this is what’s coming, but it’s starting to make more sense to me. Obviously, I am not a battery technician of any kind, nor an electrical engineer. I’m just trying to figure out a differentiating factor, which is often a selling point when Apple enters a market.

Let’s think about it in terms of a watch-type device: since it would be attached to a person’s body similar to a current wristwatch, it would have the benefit of constantly being moved around; kinetic energy might be a factor here. The natural movement of a person’s body could be channeled into keeping a wearable device supplied with trickle power. Kinetic watches are already on the market, but have not seen true penetration, and re a smaller percentage of the devices out there; so far, fits the Apple formula–take something that already exists and do it better. I also have a few G-Shock watches that are part of Casio’s Tough Solar line. The watchfaces contain tiny solar cells that require minimal exposure to light to continue to power the watch. They work exceptionally well, and I never have to change a battery.

Kinetic and solar power. Individually, I doubt they’d be enough to power a device like the one people are expecting on their own. But together, it starts to seem feasible. Ok, now what would make those low-power technologies not viable?

Radios: this device is going to need to communicate, probably with a nearby iOS device or a Mac. However, Bluetooth LE is starting to show up in more places and appears to be extremely flexible. I’ve seen some very cool applications of this lately, and it feels like a shoe-in for a device like this. Wi-fi, I’m not so sure about; may or may not be necessary depending on the feature set of the device, and that’ll surely suck power. Cellular/wireless broadband? Forget it. No way.

Screen: certainly this device will have a gorgeous screen to match the other ones Apple offers. It’ll be small though, and I’d be shocked to see Apple use the same high-drain tech that exists in the current Retina LED panels for a device like this. Just doesn’t seem likely. I don’t know what they have cooking, but it won’t be e-ink (not pretty enough) and it won’t be exactly what you have in your phone (battery destroyers at high brightness values, which people would totally need to see this device outside in the sun, like any normal watch).

Using this math, it starts to form a picture of what’s going to set it apart. All the other devices that people use right now need to be charged every few days. If Apple could offer a device that effectively never needed to be plugged in, that factor alone would be a huge selling point. And I can absolutely hear the keynote already:

“We all have other devices we use for this sort of thing already. But what’s are the problems with those devices? Small, ugly screens–if they have screens at all. Limited communication and functionality with our iPhones and iPads. And they have to be charged all the time! Some last a few days, some longer, but they all need to be taken off of you and plugged in. We think we can do this better…

…A beautiful, low power screen that is extremely readable in bright sunlight. Bluetooth LE for complex interconnection with tons of different apps. And forget a week of battery life; it never needs to be plugged in–ever.”

Now: we know Apple doesn’t fight on specs, so all this hardware talk is merely prelude to what it affords the user to do, which is where Apple excels. The device quietly becomes a part of your life, providing information and enrichment without a net cost of annoyance. You start to wonder how you lived without it. The commercial writes itself; people from every age demographic, every walk of life, all finding a different, perfect personal use for a tiny always-attached device. You never charge it, and it’s always there, working for you. Your iPhone’s tiny companion.

It’s a lot more believable than trying to get a date on a ski lift.

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.