Sunday, February 17, 2013

iWatch - What is Possible?

Analysts and Apple fans have recently become enamored with the idea of an iWatch.  Bruce Tognazzini, a respected ex-Apple employee has an excellent blog post in which he describes all sorts of smart uses/features for such a watch.  As anticipation for such a device is building, so are the expectations for its features.  Some have come to see it as essentially an iPhone with a small screen.  I think those folks will be disappointed.  Think about it: we're talking about a device that needs to be thinner than an iPhone and, at most, 4 square inches in size.  There is no room for much of a battery!  Add to that the fact that, historically, people don't expect to have to recharge their watches every day, and you begin to see how impossible a "mini-iPhone" iWatch is.

So the features of an iWatch must revolve around power: how to minimize consumption and/or how to provide more of it without taking the watch off.

What can be done to keep power consumption to a minimum?  The two largest power hogs in a mobile device are its screen and the various radios driving communications (wifi, cellular, bluetooth).  Screen power consumption can be minimized by using a technology used in e-Readers (and in the recent "Pebble" smart watch): e-Ink.  With e-Ink, power is only needed when the screen needs to change.  But the technology, by its nature, has two drawbacks: slow refresh rates (making video impossible) and lack of color.  If Apple deems color and video playback indispensable, its option is OLED.  Reducing power on the various radios is easy: simply limit communication to one low-power channel.  I believe that is Bluetooth 4.0.  Of course, if the iWatch doesn't have wifi built in, it will not be a "connected" standalone device.  Apple's choice.

So, if the iWatch uses an e-Ink display and Bluetooth 4.0 for communication with an iPhone, what could such a device do?  Well, it could tell time! :-)  Also, like the Pebble, it could act as a remote display for all the phone's notifications.  For notifications requiring action, the watch's microphone could be used to tell Siri (located on the phone) what to do.  Similarly, the iWatch could display (or speak) results of any spoken Siri query.  The built-in speakers and microphone could also be used to make or answer phone calls (like today's Bluetooth headsets).  The bottom of the iWatch and/or the watchband could contain sensors that keep track of basic biometric info (e.g. pulse rate) - perhaps something similar to what Nike's Fuelband does - and send it to the phone occasionally (where an app can let you analyze the data over time).  Finally, an e-ink based iWatch could display OCR codes from Passbook.  When at a "favorite" store, the iWatch would automatically display the store's pass.  No need to fish for the phone or wallet!  Some analysts/users propose that the iWatch should have an NFC chip for payments.  I think this might be a future addition to the watch - there aren't enough (any?) NFC-based cash registers out there to warrant the additional complexity (and power drain) in the watch.  How long between charges?  Well, we have a couple examples that give us a clue: the Pebble smart watch lasts 7 days.  The Nike Fuelband is said to last 4 days.  So Apple, with its engineering prowess and deep R&D pockets, should be able to produce a watch that lasts at least as long as the Pebble.

If Apple wants to endow its watch with a color display and the ability to carry on FaceTime video conversations or watch Youtube videos, e-Ink is out of the question - an OLED display becomes necessary (it uses less power than LCD and can be put on a flexible substrate to allow for a curved display).  If the watch has a built-in accelerometer, intelligent power management software could turn off the display whenever its wearers' arm is hanging by his/her side and gets activated only by the touch of a finger or by an incoming notification.  Perhaps, this way, the iWatch could still last 5-7 days between charges.

But no matter how hard Apple tries, an iWatch will have to be charged on at least a weekly basis.  What can Apple do to make this as painless as possible?  Some manufacturers have begun offering wireless charging pads (and Apple owns a patent on doing this over the distance of up to 1 meter) that might be useful here.  If one didn't have to plug in yet another device and, instead, simply placed the watch, along with ones iPhone, on such a pad for charging at night, people might not mind!  Heck, if they can pull off that feat, maybe an iWatch only really needs to last as long as the partner iPhone!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Let's Save The E-Reader!

Dear Mr. Bezos,

I recently saw statistics which suggest that the e-reader has had its hey day in 2011 - apparently sales for 2012 are down for the first time in the technology's history!  That saddens me.  I'm an avid reader and a great fan of the Kindle line of e-readers (we have two in our household and I gifted a couple more to relatives).  But I understand why sales are down: the tablet is eating the e-readers' lunch!  People apparently prefer these multi-purpose devices over the single-purpose e-readers.

But that should come as no surprise to anyone - history is full of examples where multi-use devices eliminated superior single-purpose competitors.  Most famously, the cell phone: a multi-purpose device that doesn't do all that great a job making phone calls.  Yet it has largely supplanted land-line phones.  It doesn't take great pictures, yet it has largely eliminated the point-and-shoot camera!  It does a so-so job browsing the internet, yet more and more web surfing is done via mobiles rather than desktops.  The situation is identical for e-readers versus tablets: tablets are inferior text-reading devices - I don't think anyone who has used an e-reader would prefer an LCD-based tablet for any lengthy reading - but people are willing to put up with a mediocre reading experience, because they can also use the same tablet to surf the web and enjoy rich media (e.g. audio and video).  Last, but not least, they can use tablets to run useful general-purpose apps (e-mail, facebook, Words-with-Friends, etc.)  People don't want to fill their lives with single-purpose devices!  So the e-reader is headed for the museum, right?

Not so fast!  Why, exactly, is the e-reader a single-purpose device?  I understand that e-ink technology prevents it from being a video player, but why can't it be a good web browser?  Why can't it be a great audio player?  Why can't it host useful apps?  There is no technical reason!

I have a 3rd-generation Kindle (the one that still has a keyboard).  Sure, it has a rudimentary web browser, but because it lacks a touch screen and because the CPU is too weak to render pages in a reasonable period of time, surfing the web is neigh impossible.  Newer generation Kindles have added touch screens, but have not addressed the slowness issue - so surfing the web on a Kindle is still much more painful than on any tablet.  But this should be a simple issue to address: simply improve the software and use a quicker CPU (even if that is at a slight cost to battery longevity).  It's not rocket science!   Making the Kindle an excellent audio player should be even less of a problem.  It already plays music quite well - the Kindle's user interface is simply too horrible to operate the audio player in a convenient way, so most people don't bother - or even know it exists!  So get some decent UI developers (which are also sorely needed in other areas of the Kindle's operation) to make the audio player easier to access/use!  Finally, there is the need to run apps.  Kindle e-readers are based on Linux and Amazon has had a "Kindle Developer Kit"(KDK) available for a long time, but to-date, only a handful of apps exist.  Why?  It can't be the programming language - the KDK is based on Java, the most widely used programming language in the world.  I suspect developers aren't flocking to the Kindle platform because the API is too limited which, in turn, is probably because the CPU is underpowered and can't handle sophisticated apps.  So the solution is a brawnier CPU and, possibly, a beefier API.  Again, no rocket science involved.

Making these relatively simple changes, would allow folks to use the Kindle a lot more.  Sure, it still won't let them watch YouTube videos or Netflix content, but they'd be able to peruse the mountains of static content on the Web, to visit social sites such as Facebook & Google+, and to read e-mail.  They could listen to their music while they do these things.  E-readers could, for most users, be the tablet-of-choice, since they would be easier on the eyes while reading and surfing the web, yet still allow for decent audio and app experiences.  Users who want to watch video or enjoy color on the go could still do so with their cellphones.  Tablets could be headed for the museum! :-)

I'm an avid reader and a news/web junkie.  Because the Kindle is not usable in the latter contexts, I've gotten used to using my iPhone and, when my wife isn't looking, the family iPad - the Kindle is collecting dust most of the time.  But my eyes are killing me!  I'd much rather surf the web using e-ink! If future Kindles had the capabilities I outlined, I would immediately buy e-readers for the whole family!

In summary, please build a Kindle with the following specs:

  • E-ink, touch-sensitive display in a variety of sizes: 6" is fine for books, for newspapers and magazines with their natural multi-column layouts, a bigger screen would be very nice.
  • Hard buttons for power, page forward/backward (I have no idea why such a useful feature for reading was removed in the latest Kindles - it allows for one-handed reading!), volume, and maybe wifi (to preserve power more easily)
  • A CPU and software fast enough to support fast web surfing and sophisticated 3rd-party apps
  • An intuitive user interface for reading, surfing the web, playing apps, and listening to audio
Best regards,
A reader and web surfer with tired eyes