Apple’s (pre-)announcement of the Apple Watch left the tech world in the usual disarray. Is it an expensive knock-off of Android watches (people tell me there is such a thing!)? Is it an attack on the high-end Swiss watch market? Is it an attack on the low-end Japanese watch market? Is it an even more transparent lock-in attempt on soi-disant “Apple fanbois”? I’d answer “no” to all those questions, but right now I’m more interested in the hardware and software technology of the watch.
Notice that the above link doesn’t mention iOS anywhere, but this other link has the magic word: WatchKit. Quote: “WatchKit Apps. Soon your favorite apps will feature controls and interactions unique to Apple Watch, enabling you to enjoy them in dynamic new ways.”
Speculations about WatchKit since then usually have mentioned one or two assumptions:
- WatchKit will be written in/accessible only from Swift;
- WatchKit apps will run under iOS on the Apple Watch.
The first is, of course, wishful thinking from developers investing in the new Swift language. The second is, in my opinion, completely unwarranted and I’ll try to explain why.
This post is the most plausible so far: “WatchKit apps will ship as embedded binaries in iPhone apps, using the same basic principals [sic] as iOS 8 extensions. There will be some mechanism for the watch paired to an iPhone to detect and automatically install these ‘apps’ based on what is available on the paired iPhone. Delete the container app from the iPhone, it disappears from the watch. Xcode will have a template to add a WatchKit app to an iPhone app project.”
Let’s back off WatchKit for a second and look at what we’ve seen of the hardware. The entire main board is shrunk down to a single unit: the S1. If you stop the middle introduction film at 4:46, you’ll see that it’s really a collection of chips and SMT components on an encapsulated multilayer board — not really a “single chip” as the narration says, but many large CPU “chips” nowadays are like that, too. Other than the S1, there’s of course the “Taptic Engine” assembly which does the wrist tapping, the crown sensor assembly, antennas and display, and the most important part: the battery.
Battery life is the make-or-break feature of the Apple Watch. iFixit’s disassembly of the Moto 360 watch shows why: there’s a square
peg battery inside a round casing, rated at 320 mAh. Even though Motorola apparently build their own batteries, they don’t have enough volume to do a round one. Apple doesn’t have a volume problem and their casing is square, so they’re free to use all remaining volume for a longer-lasting battery.
The 320 mAh rating and the typical battery life of 12 hours of the Moto 360 means that the watch consumes, on the average, just under 27 mA. But they run Android on the watch, using an off-the-shelf TI ARM processor with attached RAM, flash memory, and so forth, so that figure is not surprising. In other words, it’s a stripped-down cellphone/MP3 player.
Suppose that Apple did its usual optimization of battery size, usage, etc., in a stripped-down iPod nano. It’s half the size of the nano, which has a 30-hour life, so we can assume half the battery, meaning 15 hours. OK, that would be marginally acceptable, perhaps.
But remember, the Apple Watch needs an iPhone nearby. In fact, many of the published functions, such as Siri, cellphone call response, GPS and so forth certainly use the iPhone’s hardware and software for that. Remember that one of the culprits of excessive battery usage is generic apps and processes running on the device. Remember that Apple, since the first iPod in 2001, has been very aggressive in optimizing their embedded systems. Remember that the first iPods and iPhones didn’t have any generic apps running on them, either. Remember that Apple already has technologies like Clang, OpenCL and Metal…
All that said, why run iOS and generic applications on the Watch at all? So here’s what I think likely about the real implementation.
- Watch OS (or whatever it’s called — did they explicitly call it anything?) will not be a stripped-down iOS; maybe even not a Darwin derivative. It will be a highly optimized embedded system that has a few apps running in as few processes as possible. It will be very robust because it will be able to do only a fixed set of functions.
- In other words, it will run only those things that may run while the paired iPhone is not available; we don’t know yet, but that might be just the timekeeping and pulse measuring apps. If the iPhone is there, the Watch will also work as a specialized I/O and display device for the apps installed there.
- WatchKit will run on the paired iPhone inside a special server process; a matching iOS app will show installed Watch apps — probably those apps will be from the normal App Store, since they usually will have an iOS counterpart.
- So, an installed Watch app will have at least some sort of preference app or pane on the iPhone; no use typing in passwords and such on the Watch, right? The part written in/for WatchKit will contain a server plugin that does the heavy lifting, data collating and communicating with the outside world, but it will also contain the application logic itself, commanding the Watch to do or display certain things.
- I don’t mean to imply that the Watch will run a full WebKit client and the iPhone a web server, that might be overkill. Perhaps a useful subset of that, perhaps some variation of Display Postscript, some interpreted command language, or just a sequence of drawing orders? The important part is that there’ll be a single process on the Watch for doing the UI, and all the application-specific parts can be offloaded to the iPhone.
One consequence is that you can forget the idea of “jailbreaking” the Watch to connect to a non-iPhone, of course. Another one is that battery life might be at least a day, maybe even two or more. Nothing on Apple’s site so far contradicts any of my reasoning.
So, will WatchKit be accessible from Swift apps? Certainly. Will it itself be written in Swift? I doubt it for now. Maybe in iOS 9 some of the frameworks in iOS (and OS X) will have been rewritten, assuming that by then the Swift optimizer will be good enough. But that won’t be the case in a few months.
Possible but unlikely: WatchKit may have an API to download actual application code to the S1, which may (or may not) have an ARM-like architecture. Only in such a case — and since there will be no Cocoa/iOS frameworks on the Watch — I would expect the downloaded code to be in Swift (without optionals!), for extra safety; can’t have the Watch crashing and rebooting, right?
Update: Marcel Weiher kindly reminded me of CarPlay, which apparently works like that; nobody would say that cars are running iOS. On the other hand, in that case, the device is connected over USB (that is, reasonable bandwidth) and the car doesn’t have any battery life problems.