Why the Apple Watch could replace the iPhone

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Watch, iPhone, Pac-Man


As Horace Dediu recently observed, in its early days, the iPhone was effectively an accessory to the Mac / PC. But as backup and app management shifted onto the phone itself, desktop tethering grew unnecessary.

In the same way, recent Watch upgrades (specifically, the Series 3’s faster processor and cellular connectivity) could be Apple’s first steps towards detaching the Watch from its tether, the iPhone. And as it grows more capable, the Watch has started to usurp the phone’s role in our lives. Dediu writes,

The Watch is effectively stealing usage from the iPhone. At first it took alerts, timekeeping, and basic messaging away. Now it’s taking basic phone calls and music and maybe maps.

Phoneless computing

The Watch will inevitably continue along this trajectory. It’s not difficult to imagine the iPhone being “eaten alive,” its role absorbed by devices at either end of the size spectrum: the iPad on the large side, the Watch on the small.

To some extent, the Watch and iPad are already capable of shouldering the phone aside. The Watch handles many mobile tasks that previously required my phone: on-the-go notifications, fitness tracking, navigation, and light reading. And increasingly, the iPad can handle the “heavy lifting” tasks: long-form text entry, video and audio editing, and email triage.[1]

Why would anyone want this?

Shifting power computing tasks from the iPhone to the iPad would be fairly painless; the tablet’s larger screen actually makes many jobs easier.

But moving the other direction—shifting casual and mobile computing to the Watch—is trickier. That change comes with some downsides: the Watch’s processor is slower, its battery less capable, and its screen relatively tiny. Why sign up for all those downgrades?

Well, first, there’s the convenience factor. Tracking, carrying, and charging one device is easier than caring for two. And as the use cases for the Watch and the iPhone increasingly overlap, it will feel more and more redundant to keep both of them with you at all times.

Relatedly, the Watch has a major advantage over the phone as a portable device: it’s far less accident-prone. Phones can (and often do) slip out of hands and flop out of pockets, but a device that’s strapped to your body isn’t going anywhere. Also, because the Watch is so small, Apple can build it out of more durable materials (e.g. the scratch-resistant sapphire screen of the stainless steel models).

There’s a final reason that I’d like to see the Watch usurp the iPhone—one that’s more philosophical than pragmatic. Eliminating the pocket computer would help restore our attention to the people and places around us. As miraculous as smartphones have proved, too often we use them to distract us from being present here and now. The moment we even sniff a bit of boredom, we slip out our phones and snort greedily at Facebook or Instagram.[2]

The Watch’s form factor eliminates the temptation to pursue such soul-sapping dead ends. Its screen is too small to browse social media feeds. Its battery life is too limited and the processor too underpowered to watch video or play games. And because I have to lift my arm to view its screen, the Watch discourages extended use; fatigue sets in after just a few seconds.

As a hardware device, then, the Watch is designed to request my attention momentarily, then immediately release it, returning me to return to my surroundings.


Sometimes constraints are a good thing. Although the Apple Watch is less flexible and capable than the iPhone in some ways, its hardware constraints provide “bumper rails” that could help me avoid unhealthy and unproductive computing habits. ■


  1. We’re not quite there yet, though. The Watch needs a few basic additions to become a viable primary device. First, from a software perspective (and as mentioned above, Apple must eliminate the requirement that the Watch be tethered to the iPhone. Second, the Watch needs a camera. Yes, cue the Dick Tracy jokes. And yes, we’ll all look ridiculous holding up our wrists to align our Instagram shots. But I can’t leave behind my phone until Apple fits a great image sensor into its wearable. I’ve grown accustomed to having the best camera I’ve ever owned with me at all times.  ↩
  2. Substitute your mobile drug of choice: Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Bejeweled, or Words with Friends.  ↩


Pac-Man vector artwork courtesy of Christian Quiroz. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.