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Friday, Feb 08, 2013 8:13pm
Former Apple designer 'Tog' speculates on Apple smart watch
The watch-like shape of the previous-generation iPod nano inspired a cottage wristband industry of its own, turning the music player -- which also had a clock-face app and a few limited other uses -- into a form of "smart watch" that caught the fancy of millions. With advancements since 2010 in connectivity, Bluetooth and miniaturization, Apple could -- according to former Apple Human Interface Group founder Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini -- create its own smartwatch that could do even more.

The biggest limitations on the previous Nano-based were its almost-required hard-wired headphones, lack of Internet connectivity, a small choice of apps and good (but still limited to around 24 hours on a charge) battery life. Tog, who believes Apple is hard at work on an all-new dedicated smart watch design, offered some thoughts about how to overcome the previous limitations and turn the device into a "key" that coordinates other devices and performs more functions while remaining both a simple watch and a genuinely useful device that could, he said, "have a profound impact on our lives and Apple's fortunes."

In his blog article, Tog lays out his vision of a watch that could act as a security agent for one's other iOS devices (acting as a locator, passcode unlocker, tracking device and alarm), a geographical information gatherer to aid in further enhancing Apple's Maps, and even as a front-end to services actually located on nearby devices, connected by Bluetooth (such as, for example, letting users access some Siri functions by speaking to the watch rather than having to fish their iPhone out of pockets or bags).

The new Bluetooth 4.0 would make this possible even while dramatically enhancing battery life on the device, particularly in conjunction with Apple's continuing advances in battery technology (he cites the much more limited Cookoo Watch as an example, noting that it goes a year between charges). As an example, when the watch is nearby, a passcode set on an iOS device would be automatically turned off -- making it practical for the passcode to be set for instant activation whenever the watch (and presumably the owner) is no longer present. Users could ask the watch to alert them if their phone is no longer within range, for example, or trigger Find My iPhone's "lost mode" to further secure the device.

Tog proposes that pressure, altitude and other geographic data gathered from the watch when it is synced could then be used to create a crowd-sourced map on an accuracy scale "several orders of magnitude" more granular than anything ever attempted before at virtually no cost, adding to Apple's nascent Maps technology. The watch could be used to access Siri to ask it to call someone, and use a Bluetooth 4.0 headset to pass the call to the nearby iPhone. Likewise, it could handle other Siri requests that work with the "Eyes Free" concept Apple is actively pushing to car manufacturers.

The "iWatch," as Tog refers to it, is not based on any "insider" information he has but rather "an understanding of Apple, its products, the problem and the opportunity" for disruptive change in a stilted industry. He sees the device as a "facilitator/coordinator" leveraging limited Internet access through its Bluetooth connection to iOS devices and helping to manage tasks that don't require users to physically look at or touch the iOS device itself.

The iWatch would also offer a few limited "app" uses that don't require an iOS device to bridge to, from telling the time to the sort of functionality that exists in the Nano: Nike+ fitness stats, FM radio, voice memos, and act as its own iPod as well. It could even, with the help a Near-Field Communication (NFC) chip, act as a payment "wand" for store transactions.

Apple, naturally, has not dropped even the slightest indication that it has any designs on the smart watch industry, and may not ever produce such a device. Though it would seem a natural, Apple did not originally envision the scope or popularity of the iPod nano's surprise emergence as a smart watch (though the company encouraged it once it caught on) and may decide the market for such a device is too small, or best left to others.

Tog's vision of such a product sparks the imagination and sounds like a certain winner in the market -- but as he well knows from his long association with former CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs -- Apple says "no" to a lot of marketable ideas if it decides that the product doesn't fit its focus. The company has patented a number of ideas on "wearable" computing devices ever since it first came out with the clip-able iPod shuffle design, and even holds a patent on a wireless charging idea that would overcome what Tognazzini sees as the smart watch industry's biggest obstacle -- the need to take it off one's wrist to sync and charge it frequently (though the technology isn't currently thought to be tenable on a commercial scale) .

He is bursting with ideas for this device -- everything from health analysis using the accelerometer to temperature control (interfacing with Nest, perhaps?) and far more. Reading the essay, one wonders why he's (potentially) spilling the beans on what suddenly is a marvellous idea for something we never knew we needed. Tog may no longer be with Apple, but there's clearly a lot of Apple still with him.