The Challenge and Virtue of Tiny Screens

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.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

40 thoughts on “The Challenge and Virtue of Tiny Screens”

  1. i completely agree with you articles

    however to say that Apple will usher in the era of glanceable data and then to expect the Android Wear crowd will follow suit and give Android Phone users the same experience in time is a bit biased, or just a reinterpretation of history

    Google is the one that ushered in the era of glanceable data in the form of Widget, Google now, search, Android, etc. Apple and their crowd are the one that will follow suit this time and give IPhone users the same experience in time

    1. Reinforces the notion that Apple is a perfector and popularizer. Nothing to sneeze at, but there is often the potential of revisionist history. That’s the benefit of mindshare.

    2. Actually the Palm Pilot and Palms first smartphone introduced glanceable data and the iPhone made it more popular. I have been using an Android watch of various models for 18 months and it is true that it deliver’s glanceable data, although my experience with it on the watches I have tested is that Google Wear is not consistent in what it delivers. My key point in adoption is that Android Wear has not gained enough traction to drive the concept of Glanceble data into the broader mainstream but the Apple Watch will and be the one that makes it broadly popular.

      1. Palm supported widgets and had a smart assistant ? I’ve had the full run of Palm from the Pilot to the Tungsten 2 (I think), and never saw any. How did they introduce glanceable data, which I take to mean data you can glance at w/o having to do anything ?

      2. Also, you’ve got to be consistent: if you’re discounting Android for not being mainstream enough, how can you bring up Palm who actually failed and dissappeared ?

      3. that was my hole point
        If you were an Android user, I’m not talking about someone who only useed Android for testing purpose, but a real user who invested his time and money in
        the platform, you would know that the widget, Google now, Notification etc.
        that are actually the basis for glanceable data are the unique the most used
        and most appreciate of features
        in the android platform from the beginning
        that are new to much Apple user which is why the majority them including many
        Apple analysis have that much difficulty at understanding the potential and even
        to some extent the superiority of Android Wear compares to Apple Watch
        since they never been an Android user hence are naturally biased toward the
        Apple platform

          1. If this is your example of what is and isn’t _glanceable_, you pretty much made Tim B.’s point.


          2. Well, if that’s too much for you, you can take away all the stuff you don’t want and just leave the one widget you can handle.
            Much more glanceable than… icons… even with the utmost bad faith.

          3. Not so much that there is too much, just that they are not well designed. I don’t really glance to get the information. At most I can glance to see that there is information, but I still have to read to get that information. I think Tim Bajarin means something a step beyond a simple notification.


          4. There is -gasp- a choice of widgets for each app, and also a choice of apps, so if an email widgets that lists the title and sender of unread emails for all accounts, a calendar widgets that lists appointments and a to-do widget that lists your to-do items… aren’t well designed according to you, I’m sure you can find others.
            I’m curious though as to what a well-designed widget would be in your opinion. I find a good widget a key choice criteria for apps I need to check constantly (email, to-do, calendar, RSS).
            Google is actually working a lot on the subject, though I’m too steeped in old ways and too leery of proprietary formats to jump into the Google Now and Inbox smartness, I always find myself working against apps that try to meld tasks, messages and day planner, though I’m sure there’s a right one for me somewhere ? Smart widgets are probably required for smartwatches… another reason why I’m not enthusiastic.

          5. Well, if better designed widgets exists your point would have been better served to have used those for your example. Just because something has or is a widget does not automatically equate to glanceable.

            To me the point is not lists nor just a notification. While Android Widgets create an _opportunity_ for glanceability, it is not intrinsically systemic, it is not the primary purpose. Therefore I agree that it is a stretch to say that Google has _ushered in_ glanceable data. Maybe summarized data, but that is not the same thing.

            The author points out:

            “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, if you want to take the author to task for his point, you should ask him what Apple will do differently from his Moto 360 that he believes Apple will be the ones who usher in this concept.


          6. Well; “better” is according to taste. To me the 3 best widgets I could find are the ones on my home screen, and I find them eminently glanceable. I’m still waiting for your take on a good email widget, but I can conceive someone else would put either different apps’ widgets on their home screen (say FB/Twitter/Hangout feeds, weather, a specific news site…), or different widgets from the same apps (only 1 email account and include read emails, day view instead of agenda view for the calendar)… I can’t conceive of there being absolute best widgets for all users though.
            If widgets are not the essence of glanceable data, then what is ? Granted, the possibility of widgets does not magically make all widgets look good and be efficient/relevant, they’re apps after all… but “no widgets” is guaranteed to be always bad and irrelevant, in absentia.
            What the author is describing is simply actionable alerts transferred over to a watch. I know Apple is trying to novlang those into widgets, but that’s utterly not the same thing.

          7. Since the point is not about widgets (of which I have never found a use) my take on _widgets_ (email or otherwise) is moot. Glanceable data, as described by Tim Bajarin, is the point. The difference, to me, is that glanceable data is far more focused than your examples of widgets and more informative than a notification. I concur with the author’s description. I also agree that if this becomes a “thing” Apple will be the one to make it such, Android Wear’s and the Moto 360’s pre-existance not withstanding.


          8. Well, when someone says “oh, but those are baaad widgets”, I do expect them to be able to come up with good widgets. Or maybe they can’t and/or they’re just criticizing for the sake of it. In which case their whole opinion on the subject is moot.
            Indeed, you’re sure Apple will be the one…

          9. Forget about widgets. Nothing on your phone is glanceable. If you have to take a couple seconds to get your phone out, activate the screen, you’ve already gone past glanceable. Wearables with screens that come on as you look at them are the only devices that can even be considered in the discussion of glanceability. Then we can look at how well those devices deliver glanceable info.

          10. You missed the point, which is not about the device, but about the format. Glanceable info will be either an actionable notification or a widget, and Android already offers (actually, originated) those two, so looking at what they do and how they work on Android gives a glimpse into how we’ll interact with smartwatches.

          11. The device *is* the format. An actionable notification is exactly that, a notification. A widget is a widget. They can become glanceable *if* that info can indeed be glanced at. That isn’t practical on a phone. It has to happen on a wearable device that allows glancing in the first place. It doesn’t matter who does what first, it matters how glanceable the info is, the quality of the glanceability if you will.

            If Apple’s success can teach you anything, you should at least know by now that being first doesn’t matter.

            Hmm, I suppose glancing is possible on a phone if you carry it around in your hand with the screen on all the time, but who does that? We use our phones and then we put them away to carry them, then we use them, and put them away, and so on. That makes glancing impossible.

          12. Considering I didn’t say they were baaad widgets. I did say they weren’t a good example of glanceable, which they clearly are not. And I believe Tim did a good job of explaining what he means by glanceable and I agree with him. Seems to me you are the one disagreeing to be disagreeable. Especially since the point of the article is the affect of smaller screens on the framework of “glanceable”.


          13. They are not well designed to accommodate the kind of glanceability I take the article to be speaking of. They may be well designed for your purposes and for a smartphone, but I don’t think they are designed for the topic of this discussion. When I “glance” at your screen pics, only two things grab my attention—’Sep 27′ and ‘2’. That does not provide useful data except for the date. That ‘2’ is enough to make me keep reading, but that is no longer a glance.


      4. Just curious but does the question of who copied who, especially in non-patented features, come up often when you are talking with industry insiders? Among the people who are actually creating the products we are talking about?

        As the current patent law stands, if you don’t want people to copy you, you apply for a patent or copyright it. If you don’t, you’re basically giving the go ahead to anybody who wants to. Patents are also award to who first conceived the idea on a lab, not the company that first introduced it into the market.

        My understanding is that arguing who copied who, and who introduced a non-patented feature into the market first is totally inconsequential, and not really worth the time.

        1. Agreed. But among the anti-Apple crowd it’s very important to play the ‘who copied who + first!’ game in order to downplay Apple’s success. You see, Apple isn’t really succeeding, they’re just copying, they are only popularizing, not innovating. Apple’s closed model of integration doesn’t work, it cannot succeed, it just isn’t possible 🙂

          1. Yes.

            I would actually try to elevate the status of “popularising”. In many ways, innovation is “popularising”. I think Christensen even said the same.

            For example, the Apple II and other PCs at the time were innovative because they popularised personal computing beyond the realm of hardware geeks. The Internet was innovative because it popularised network computing beyond military and university networks. The GUI was innovative because it made it vastly easier to perform complex tasks and hence popularised personal computing further. The Ford production system was innovative because it popularised automobiles. The list goes on and on. The important thing is to separate innovation from invention. They are very different concepts.

            So really, popularising IS what innovation is about.

            Smartphones popularised personal computing by a) increasing the amount of time we spend doing personal computing tasks, b) spreading to people who didn’t or couldn’t own PCs. Android certainly played an important role in b), and I consider it be innovative in that sense, even though they copied a lot of elements from the iPhone (which were patented).

            The problem with Android Wear is that it has failed to popularise wearable computing, at least up till now. And if you can’t popularise, you may be inventive ,but you surely aren’t innovative. And if you have been inventive, they you should have patent protection.

            Additionally, popularisation is not only about marketing, but also making the features noticeable and easy to use. This is an area where Apple is at least, perceived to excel.

          2. Well said. You make a good point about marketing, I think many people also attribute Apple’s success at popularizing directly to marketing, so as soon as the marketing misses a beat, watch out, Apple is doomed.

        2. Actually the PC makers don’t really go after that. Their only concern is how to stay competitive. They do look slowly at patents and try to work around them but the issue of who was first is a non issue with them. All they care about is not losing ground and staying competitive.

  2. Google Now is so far the best source of useful, contextual, glanceable information. Android users have had this superior service for a long time and it is incorporated in Android Wear. I believe Cortana is making great strides in this directions for Widows phones. To suggest Apple will usher this in and that ” Of course, I expect the Android Wear crowd will follow suit and give Android Phone users the same experience in time. ” is that inaccurate and biased it is comical.

    1. And yet, somehow, Android Wear has been incapable of actually making any significant impact. For all that Google has done with Android, and they have done a lot, Apple is still the standard everything else is compared to. That is unlikely to change with the Apple Watch.

      The question is, what will cause this to change? Apparently it is neither Google nor Microsoft.


      1. Android is not so popular with the segment of the market that is willing to drop $350 on what is, for now, a convenience computing device.

        1. Do not belittle ‘convenience’. All technological revolutions, starting at least from when man invented the wheel, were and are all about ‘convenience’. We might use the terms ‘efficiency’ or ‘productivity’ because we are somehow ashamed that technological breakthroughs have been used for supposedly mundane and frivolous as opposed to vital and utilitarian purposes, but convenience, efficiency, and productivity all mean the same thing: Making the tasks of life easier and, in some cases, more enjoyable.

          1. I’m not belittling convenience. I’m just saying that, for most people, it doesn’t have as high a value as the watch’s price. The phone is already convenient enough for most people.

          2. You’ve probably hit on the key reason why Android wearables won’t make much of an impact for a long time. Price. The majority of Android sales are lower end. More capable wearables will necessarily be more expensive, and they will have to hit a very low price point before the bulk of the Android market is motivated to go beyond their phone, which is as you say is “convenient enough”. I think price points will get there, eventually, but it’s going to take time.

            On the flip side Apple has a huge customer base on the high end of the market where price is less of a concern. Add to that the integrated nature of the ecosystem/products and there’s a natural advantage for wearables to gain traction. I wish Android wearables great success, but at this point Apple is essentially its own market, the success of Apple wearables and Android wearables is going to look quite different I think. Which is fine. The trap to avoid of course will be calling one or the other a failure simply because the success of each looks different.

          3. As I said in a previous post, most people will think the smart phone is convenient enough until they observe that the line for smart watch transactions is moving much faster than the line for smart phones only.

            Of course this means that the smart watch ecosystem and infrastructure needs to be much more fully developed than it is right now, but that’s coming.

            So yeah, the AppleWatch isn’t going to blast off like the iPhone or iPad did but I’m quite confident that it will eventually reach mass usage. The diffusion profile would be more like iPod. It is the next Apple device that we wouldn’t be able to live without after first thinking that we didn’t need it at all.

        2. Except that most Android Wear devices are not $350. The Moto360, for instance is $250.

          I got one because my watch broke, and all non-smart watches are at least as gawky.

          If the Apple Watch were for sale, I still wouldn’t get it because a) I’m disqualified (no iPhone) and b) Price alone. I don’t see it being any more valuable than the Moto360, and that value is still dubious.

  3. Glanceable data will be a boon for more than just a few people but it’s only a subset -a small subset at that- of a wrist computer’s ‘killer app’, which is convenience.

    When will smart watches attain mass usage? When people wearing them breeze through transactions, entrances, and check points that the rest have to wait in line for. Why can’t smart phones offer the same speed and convenience? The authentication bottleneck. A smart phone needs to authenticate you each time you use it on a transaction, checkpoint etc. A smart watch needs to authenticate you only once a day –when you put it on in the morning.

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