The Challenge and Virtue of Tiny Screens

on March 20, 2015

One of the things I don’t think people grasp about the Apple Watch is it is actually a computer that happens to be worn on the wrist. Although Steve Jobs took the word “computer” out of Apple’s name a long time ago, at its core Apple still makes computers and they are extremely good at it. Starting with the iPod, Apple began down an engineering path toward miniaturizing the heart or logic board of a computer and making it into smaller form factors such as the iPhone and now the Apple Watch. With each form factor, Apple has had to design special software developer kits for making applications that can be run on and work properly with each product’s new screen sizes.

Interestingly, Apple made the iPhone screen larger but even then they had to tweak the SDK to work or scale to these new screen sizes. But now they enter the market with what will be the smallest screen they have ever tackled in the smallest computer they have ever made. This means Apple, their developers, and their customers have to think very differently about this new tiny mobile computing platform of the Apple Watch. For Apple, it means they have to optimize the OS and UI just for these screen sizes and innovate around this new form factor. For developers, it challenges them to rethink how they create apps for the iPhone and, by extension, how they design apps for the watch. And for Apple’s customers, they have to have a complete mind shift in the way they think about this watch computer as well as how they can use it for their individual needs and purposes.

I think the biggest challenge will be for the developers. Many developers have spent years creating apps for desktops and laptops and had a lot of screen real estate to work with. When they had to start developing apps for smartphones they had to go through a process of rethinking what an app would look like, dealing with a new OS and UI and optimizing it for a screen much smaller than on laptops and desktop computers. That transition to creating optimal apps for smartphones took at least two years before they got the hang of it. This time around, developers have an even smaller screen to work with and the challenge to create innovative apps for this small wrist computer will be significant. I have been talking to developers of smartphone apps and they admit doing something for tiny screens is very different than what they do now.

The good news is watch apps start with an iPhone app in some cases but creating the proper extension of that app for a small screen takes a lot of creative brain power and in most cases, a complete rethinking of how the app on the iPhone is design and, by extension, used on the Apple Watch itself. The same goes for those who want to write an app that can be used even when the phone is not connected to it. They have to reorient their thinking, coding and design skills so that, whatever they create, it can work on this tiny computer with the iPhone today and without the iPhone in the future. I believe it will take at least 12-18 months for the developer community to really understand how to innovate on a tiny computer screen and create a broad set of apps for this new mobile computing device platform.

This means Apple has to continue to create great software development tools to help these developers make a shift to a tiny screen mentality and provide a lot of assistance to help them help Apple deliver more and more reasons to buy an Apple Watch.

From the customers standpoint, Apple has to make all experiences have real value and what I call “virtue” or a reason to use an Apple Watch. We already know apps for health, payments and communications will be important to Apple’s success with the watch. In fact, last week I wrote a piece that suggested the killer app for many will be communications and outlined how the ability to do non-verbal communication with friends and family just might be the sleeper app that gets people really interested in owning an Apple Watch.

I believe there is another important app or use case that will bring real virtue to the Apple Watch. I have spoken to folks at Apple who have been wearing and testing the Watch for a couple of months and everyone tells me the one big surprise to them is that, since using the Apple Watch, they don’t take their iPhones out that often to check things like messages, email, calendar, etc. What they are describing is something I have written about many times called “glancaeble” data, or quick bursts of data you can tailor to your needs and interests. I have been wearing various smartwatches for 18 months and, while there are apps for these smartwatches, it is the glancable data that is the most valuable to me. I have my Moto 360 set to send me email and tell me who it is from and what the subject is. I also tell it to send me text messages and, when I get a call, to let me know who is calling. In the past when I wanted this info, I had to take out my iPhone and check it for this data. Now, the computer on my wrist does that for me and I can quickly see the data and determine if it is something I need to respond to quickly.

In fact, I believe Apple will usher in the era of glanceable data for iPhone users and make it central to the iPhone experience. Sure, many won’t buy an Apple Watch, but for those who do, the mobile experience will be enhanced. Of course, I expect the Android Wear crowd will follow suit and give Android Phone users the same experience in time. The role of enhancing the smartphone experience and its ability to deliver many new apps for use on wrist computers is a trend that will be important to the overall future of mobile.

However, I suspect once people start using the Apple Watch, they too will discover glanceable data might be one of the most used features and important virtues of Apple’s new watch.