On Apple Watch Upgrades

While waiting for the release of the first Apple Watch, Apple watchers are killing time by speculating about future versions. Today John Gruber quoted a piece by Serenity Caldwell at iMore about the upgrade scenarios for the $10,000+ Apple Edition watches. She hopes for an upgrade program so that those who can afford to spend $10,000+ for a watch, the poor dears, don’t suffer when Apple releases inevitable improvements. (Meanwhile, she thinks its fine for those who pay $350 for a watch, many of whom don’t have the option of spending $10K+ for a watch, to buy a new Apple Watch every few years.

Gruber added his own take:

I hope Apple Watch — at least the Edition models — is upgradeable. I would bet that it’s not. The single most frequent question I’ve received this week is how can Apple justify $10,000+ prices for a watch that will be technically outdated in a few years. The simplest answer is that it’s for people who don’t care.

I say I’d bet against upgradeability simply because it’d be so unlike Apple. But, the whole idea of a solid gold $10,000 watch is also unlike Apple. We’re in new territory here. And I do wonder why Apple called out the modular design of the S1 on their technology page. Why does this image exist? An “upgrade” would probably require new sensors and antennas and battery too — more or less replacing everything inside the watch case.

This prompted a short exchange between Gruber and I on Twitter:

This has come up before. Back in December, Jean-Louis Gassée explored the question of Apple Watch upgrades through the lens of the arrival of the dSLR in the camera market, and I turned my comment on his piece into an earlier blogpost on the subject.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to restate and update my thinking on the subject:

To make the Apple Watch a reality, Apple has had to make some key compromises in the service of battery life. Despite significant efforts to miniaturize the electronics, the Apple watch seems plump, while every other Apple device is slim. Despite the satisfaction of having a personalized watch face visible to passers by, the Apple Watch shows a blank black face until the wearer raises it to his or her face. Despite the desirability of having all the functions of the watch available all the time, many of them, including third party apps, rely on a Bluetooth connection to the owners iPhone. These compromises are all, ultimately, in the service of a full day’s battery life under typical use.

Given this, I think battery life will be a primary consideration in Apple Watch updates. Batteries are incredibly important for portable electronics like the Apple Watch, smartphones and notebook computers, but despite their importance, the pace of improvement is about 10% a year. Battery life of portable devices has improved at a faster pace though. This has been accomplished by making the devices more efficient in their use of power, and much of this improvement is due to Moore’s Law.

Moore’s law can produce a halving of power consumption every 18-24 months. People worrying about the Apple Watch updates seem to be assuming that updates will come at a similarly rapid pace. I think this is unlikely, because Apple has already made significant architectural and user experience accommodations to achieve reasonable battery life. Because of this, I suspect that the core electronics of the Apple Watch account for less than half of the daily power budget of the device, while the display probably makes up the majority. Display power consumption is driven primarily by the power consumption of the light emitting diodes, which also only improve at a slow pace.

My guess is that the existing Apple Watch battery life is good enough for now, but needs further improvement. Therefore, I would expect that any Moore’s law improvements will go to battery life rather than performance or functionality. Battery capacity improvements will be put to similar use.

Once battery life is truly sufficient, Apple will next spend further improvements in thinness, by reducing the size of the battery.

The arrival of a significant improvement in the computing abilities of the Apple Watch may not arrive until complimentary communication capabilities can fit within the form factor and power budget.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes 5-10 years before truly stand-alone Apple Watches are available. On the other hand, I think that identity and fashion are increasingly important drivers of consumer tech product cycles, and I think the Apple Watch will bring that into much sharper focus. I will probably have more to say about that soon.

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  1. Pingback: Apple’s Batteries, Apple Cars? | Power Cartel

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