The Battle for The Wrist

The Apple Watch offers a hierarchy of surfaces onto which software can compete for attention:

  1. The Complication Layer
  2. The Notification Layer
  3. The Glances Layer
  4. The App Screen

These surfaces are arranged in a hierarchy where the highest is the most accessible and the lowest is the least accessible. In a similar fashion we can consider the hierarchy of screens a person could reasonably be considered to be exposed to:

  1. The Watch
  2. The Phone
  3. The Tablet
  4. The TV
  5. The Personal Computer
  6. The Public/Work Computer

Note that this hierarchy is correlated to the size and hence the portability and persistence of proximity to the user. Each of the screens has its own “surfaces” which expose software to the user with various degrees of ease. For instance the iPhone has Notifications, Control Center, Home Screen, etc. The OS X personal computer has the Desktop, Notifications, the Dashboard, the Browser etc.

It follows then that software which is located at the top of each hierarchy on each device will have the greatest exposure to user interaction and that the device which has the nearest proximity to the user will provide the greatest value to software developers.

This implies further that the most valuable “real estate” for software will be the Complication layer on the Watch.

The software which receives either default placement there or which convinces the highest number of users to opt for placement there will have the greatest potential value. As suggested in my post on how the Watch will be valued, how software will be valued will be by the probability of its Settings being enabled for display on the Watch and its presence within Glances.

The jostling for position within the constrained real estate on the wrist will be analogous to the competition for positioning on the phone. You’ll note that the winners on the phone were different than the winners on the PC. My bet is that the winners on the Watch will be different than the winners on the Phone.

And that’s not a bad thing.

  • Will Apple eventually open up complications to third-party developers? Until it does, will developers over-emphasize (i.e., abuse) notifications, as the most valuable computing real estate available to them?

    • TheMacAdvocate

      If a dev is a dick with notifications – or at least if they’re not granular about being able to control their level of invasiveness – they risk having users shut them off.

      Complications are a different animal. If Apple does allow 3rd party access, they’ll be confined to a tremendously small piece of real estate. IMO no service will “control” the watch face through their complication; their popularity will be based on how popular the service that backs them is.

      • You’re spot-on, at least when it comes to technically sophisticated users. But will “normal” Watch users curate their notifications and “punish” apps that over-notify? Will they even know how to?

        Anecdotally, Notification Center (on non-geeks’ phones) turns into a wasteland of Facebook alerts and Candy Crush nags. It’ll be interesting to see if the Watch suffers the same fate.

      • jinglesthula

        Nearly every app I’ve ever installed has done the same abysmal job of communicating the value proposition of its notifications prior to asking permission to send them.

        It’s always install, open, splash screen, TerribleApp TM would like to send you notifications, Nope, proceed to the functionality I installed the app for.

        Apps need to be experiences designed around value (jtbd), rather than around OS APIs. To roughly paraphrase Jobs, take care of the users needs and the engagement will take care of itself.

  • TheMacAdvocate

    You’re assuming support for 3rd party complications, something that (at least for now) does not exist.

  • Fran_Kostella

    It isn’t clear to me that this is strictly a hierarchy. There seems to be an intersection with expectation and context that will sort things into different devices. I have an expectation that my TV will never notify me of anything short of my entertainment desires and that it better not interrupt anything. My phone/tablet/laptop are all about the same, just differing on input methods and size of display, but all doing approximately the same thing. If I ever acquire a watch, and I’m not sold on the idea as of yet, I’m sure it will be in the place you suggest. However, I view the competition for my attention as all barbarians at the gates, so my basic impulse is to slay them all and only seek out input when a need is obvious.

  • matt

    Horace’s astuteness continuously kills me.
    having just developed a watch app (its in the appstore) i can say that as an iOS developer i repeatedly found myself contemplating the different shapes of a watchapp vs an iOS app. The complications are not an option yet as the other poster pointed out. When first developing an app you can only do so much in the simulator with glances and notifications. The app is where you can get the most realistic experience (in the simulator). Once testing it on device i realized the increased importance of the glance & notifications. It was the WatchOS interface and the experience interacting with the glance on device that reveals its elevated importance. same for notifications. the holy grail for notifications is if you construct them such that the user does not need to visit your app but can one stop shop in the notification (especially accomplishing some kind of transaction via choosing an action in the notification).

    • I imagine those in the know will be passing along the following advice to recent graduates this summer:

      “One word: Glances.”

  • “My bet is that the winners on the Watch will be different than the winners on the Phone.”

    This, to me, is the ideal way to begin thinking and talking about the Apple Watch.

  • Gareth Ward

    The Watch’s potential to add an Event/Location Trigger Layer above even the Complication Layer is the most intriguing and would be the most valuable…

  • Great analysis, Horace.

    And so, what is a Complication? It’s a tool. It’s a multi-purpose set of stable, staged, partitioned reference information**. A set of information available in a moment’s notice. In a digital age sense, that’s a tool.

    Who cares, right? Well, I mention it for this reason: it aligns with the notion that a watch is a tool more than anything else. (But let’s see if this assertion stands. I think the odds are that it will.)

    Meaning, unlike devices that enable both hands to be used (phones, tablets), a watch precludes that (for most people, most of the time).

    If one accepts that the watch is (primarily) a tool, it makes sense for most available layer to be the best embodiment of a tool: a Complication.

    … That’s how it appears right now. Let’s see if developers can think of games that turn this assertion on its head.


    ** “Multi-purpose”: the different data elements show very different types of information. “Stable”: the positions don’t change once you set them. “Staged”: it’s just there waiting for you to see it. “Partitioned”: every piece of info has its own designated spot.

  • One more observation to add (to my prior comment): if it’s essentially correct to think of the watch as a tool, then attributes that support that use are very useful. Examples: having 10 (!) complications; a larger display area (I know that one’s obvious); always-on information (i.e., the new low power ambient mode in Android wear); or great wrist-twist response (Apple Watch) to light up the information asap. That’s what makes the Digital Crown so good: quick, unobstructed manipulation. I’d even say that a rectangular display helps: it gives you natural “corner areas” to position information, it’s similar to what we’re used to with phones, and it helps information be aligned even when its on the left or right of the display. Finally, it simply allows for an information density — or a least an information structure — that’s harder, I believe, to achieve in a round display.

    … Now, I know: one can say these things help for games too. But not to the same degree: always-on ambient mode is probably less relevant to a game. The Digital Crown might, perhaps, be used in a game, but … ugh… And 10 complications (just to start with) don’t have anything to do with a game. …. I’m sure I could sit down and think of ways to inject game elements into *everything* I said (fun exercise), but I think the mass appeal would, overall, be relatively low.

  • As a final (promise) addition to my two earlier comments, please consider this:

    1. I’d (take the perhaps overly-obvious route) and go one step further: point to the watch face as the most vital real estate. I realize Horace probably didn’t mention it because it’s off limits to developers. That brings me to a final point:

    2. Whatever the #1 element is (watch face, complication, or NNN), I believe the odds that Apple would *deny* developers access to it (eventually) are LOW. Because only if Apple combines the power of that element (e.g., the watch face) with the power of the developer base, would we get an expression of the most valuable use case / job that a smartwatch can do. Put differently, even if Apple doesn’t want to, the value that developers can create this way on Android Wear might change Apple’s view.

    Exciting times. Horace you’re outstanding to a) think things thru as you do b) share your thoughts and c) allow for such a rich forum. Thanks again.

  • (I take ownership for 3 prior deleted comments… I had posted essentially the same perspective, but I had mixed the concept of the watch face with the concept of the complication.)

    COMMENT 1/3
    Great analysis, Horace. Thank you for thinking things thru, sharing your thoughts, and taking on the work of allowing comments.

    I’d add the Watch Face to this list. (I’m guessing Horace didn’t mention it because it’s off limits to developers today.) If you’ll bear with me, let me explain what seems obvious: Why the face is the most important layer:

    The watch face is essentially a tool. It’s a set of multiple, varied, structured, data elements. Some are historic (elapsed time), some anticipatory (e.g., next meeting).

    So, a set of information available in a moment’s notice. In a digital age sense, that’s a tool.

    Who cares, right? Well, I mention it for this reason: it aligns with the notion that a watch is a tool MORE THAN IT IS ANYTHING ELSE. That’s because it’s not well-suited for the other class of jobs a device can do — entertainment (music aside). Unlike devices that enable both hands to be used (phones, tablets), the watch’s wrist-placement adds friction to most entertainment use cases (most games, video).

    If one accepts that the watch is (primarily) a TOOL, it makes sense that the most valuable layer is the one that best embodies LOW-FRICTION UTILITY: the face. (Or, since that’s off limits to developers, it’s the Complications that augment the face.)

  • COMMENT 2/3
    If that’s the case, then any HW, SW, and app store attributes that support that purpose (being a tool) are especially valuable. Some examples:

    — Watch faces that support many information segments (advantage: Apple)
    — Good selection of watch faces or complications (tie: Android has far more watch faces, Apple has a decent set of complications (10))
    — Display area that is well suited to structured information. (advantage: Apple)
    >> Rectangular displays work well in this regard, providing natural resting spots for information (corners) and the ability to keep segmented information aligned (e.g., left- or right-justified)
    — Always-on ambient mode (so that useful information is readily available) (advantage: Android)
    — Good wrist-twist response (so that information is surfaced quickly) (Apple has this, but it’s to compensate for the lack of always-on ambient mode)
    — Independence from the phone (so that utility continues, even if the phone is left behind) (advantage: Android)
    — Easy manipulation of what’s shown on the display (tie; Apple has the Digital Crown and Force Touch; Android allows for swiping)
    — Natural language input (tie: Google has superb voice recognition; Apple allows voice snippets)
    — Complications that tie to 3rd party apps (advantage: TBD – I need to research this)

    These are all, or could be all, some of the best capabilities of either OS.

  • COMMENT 3/3
    This brings me to two final observations.

    1. Whatever the #1 element is (watch face, in my estimate), the odds that Apple would *deny* developers access to it are LOW. Apple knows, I’m sure, that DEVELOPERS x POWERFUL INFORMATION LAYER = TREMENDOUS NUMBER OF HIGH VALUE APPS. Or if it doesn’t, examples from Android Wear will soon make it clear.

    2. With regard to Horace’s point about “winners” (apps) on the phone vs. the watch: While many games are “winners” on the phone, the list of winners on the watch will have a lower proportion of games and a higher proportion of tools / utilities. The wrist position of the watch, and constraints to interaction with it, both lower the odds that games will thrive in the same way they do on the phone. That’s not to say there won’t be some break-out successes, but on average, the watch appears better-suited to providing utility, rather than enabling games.

    Now…. I’m sure I could sit down and think of ways to inject game elements into *everything* I just said (fun exercise), but I think the mass appeal would, overall, be relatively low.

    • Space Gorilla

      You make some good points. I’ve always thought the value of a wearable was in the glanceability of useful information. But this is an additive experience, a number of small conveniences. There are many who complain “I can already do that on my phone”. That’s an admission that the value of small conveniences is not great enough to drive a purchase. However, the additive value of many small conveniences appeals greatly to the premium consumer segment. This is exactly the kind of value this segment is looking for (not to mention the design and luxury aspects). Apple dominates this premium segment. It should then be no surprise that Android Wear devices sold far under one million in an entire year while Apple Watch has perhaps already sold a few million in what, a couple of days, less than a week?

      • I agree. Good that you mentioned the additive experience side. While aware of it, just that phrase / images it evokes are useful (at least in jogging my thinking); thank you. I agree with your points. In line with what you said, in case you didn’t see it, Paul Krugman had an interesting post in the New York Times recently (watch-related):

        from Apple and the Self-Surveillance State
        “Consider the Varian rule, which says that you can forecast the future by looking at what the rich have today — that is, that what affluent people will want in the future is, in general, something like what only the truly rich can afford right now. Well, one thing that’s very clear if you spend any time around the rich — and one of the very few things that I, who by and large never worry about money, sometimes envy — is that rich people don’t wait in line.”

    • marcoselmalo

      With the sensors and haptic feedback in the watch, we might see the rise of non-video games, games that are not played on a screen but physically. Think Wi, but without a screen.

      • I agree with you 100%. There is a complication in that regard, though: the watch is usually on the non-dominant hand. But I still think you’re correct.

  • Sacto_Joe

    There is a different way to think of the term “the battle for the wrist”, and that is the battle between wrist computer manufacturers. That battle has just been joined. It would be interesting to look at that particular battlefield as well, specifically in terms of Apple’s advantages (style, installed base of affluent potential customers, etcetera) versus its disadvantages (vulnerability to style theft, unwillingness to move away from the high quality model and hence vulnerability to those who thrive on commoditization, etcetera).

    • Walt French

      Joe, is there any indication that people contemplate “should I get this [Moto360] or the Apple Watch?”

      Absent evidence of people thinking they would give their wrist to one or the other, I’m not sure we can say there’s a battle.

      • compelled

        Seemingly reasonable, as each only works with one phone operating system so they don’t directly compete. However, I think you must also consider the longer timescale wherein a person might be compelled to switch out their phone.

      • Space Gorilla

        I’m beginning to wonder if any company other than Apple even has a real shot at the premium consumer segment. This segment is looking for whole solutions, they’re not interested in cobbling together an experience from multiple vendors, and they aren’t price-shopping.

      • Sacto_Joe

        I think Apple probably has a lock on the high end wrist computer market. But there is bound to be a low end market as well, now that Apple has broken the trail, so to speak. I’ll be happy if Apple is able to get even 15% of that market long term.

      • Space Gorilla

        Does Apple actually want any of the low end market? I doubt it. I agree there will be a low end market for wearables at some point, but the additive value of wearables right now, the small conveniences, that value seems to resonate with the premium consumer segment. The low to mid market seems to be saying “Meh, I can already do that with my phone”. I expect Android Wear sales to be quite low for quite a while yet. It seems to be a mismatch of market segments, which is perhaps why Android Wear sold less than a million in an entire year while the Apple Watch may have sold a few million in just a few days.

      • Sacto_Joe

        I think we’ve only seen skirmishes in this particular battle thus far. Several potential rivals have floated devices, but now they know the enemy. I expect Samsung and Microsoft in particular to up their game significantly over time, Samsung by copying (Apple won’t build a good-plated Watch but I expect no such compunctions on Samsung’s part), and Microsoft by “upgrading” their sports band into a true contender.
        Then there are the existing watch vendors, who are doubtless actively seeking mobile device manufacturers to partner with. I mean, what alternative do they have?

      • Space Gorilla

        I expect all of this to happen, but the question remains: Can any company other than Apple successfully address the premium consumer segment? It would seem the answer is no, Apple remains dominant in this segment. Couple that with the vertically integrated ‘whole’ user experience Apple provides (which no one else is even close to duplicating), plus the design/luxury aspects, and I’m left wondering if Apple has any real competition.

  • Sacto_Joe

    Walt, I can’t disagree with what you’re saying, but the potential of this market is just too explosive for me to believe everyone is just going to roll over. I’m guessing within six months we’ll see the beginnings of a counter-punch, basically just in time to put something out for the holidays.

    • Walt French

      Potential, certainly. But it may take a while to be realized. It seems many find it a stretch that you want all that electronics gee-whizzery in a wrist device that doesn’t address the traditional JTBDs — time and tribe ID — at all better. Most people here probably think AndroidWear actually does a worse job on traditional JTBDs, so perhaps there’s disruption potential. Meanwhile, watch companies can’t undercut their bread and butter business while having low hope that grafting Android onto their brand is anything other than a kiss of death.

      Likely, they’ll try wait-and-seeing how well Apple Watch sells before they try to figure a competitive response.

      I personally believe there’s a correlation between the conservative mindset that buys an expensive Piaget as a next-gen heirloom, and the conservative mindset of the company that sells it. That extends to being cautious about leaping onto fad bandwagons and until they know otherwise, they’ll see Appl Watch as possibly a fad that could kill them by destroying the brand foolishly, putting junky gadgets that simply make a watch well-nigh unusable.

      • Sacto_Joe

        Actually, Walt, I agree, to the degree that I think high end watch manufacturers have little to fear from Apple Watch. It’s the potential for the commodity smartwatch/wrist computer that I think is the kiss of death for the lower end watch manufacturers. That is, the low end market that hasn’t even begun to rear its head yet. The market that Space Gorilla says Apple won’t be competing in, and that will thus take away some of Apple’s potential sales.

      • Eric Gen

        I can’t remember where I saw this in the Apple Watch stories of the preceding 6-7 months, or all of the details, but the information said that the problem for the existing luxury watch makers is not so much the effect on their luxury models, but will be because of the Apple Watch’s effect on their lower-end lines that drive so much of their conglomerates revenue and profit.

        The high-end lines define the brand and may remain relatively safe. But, so much of bread-and-butter income is derived from their lower-end lines and provides the resources driving everything else. Losing their lower-end to the Apple Watch will limit their financial abilities to compete at any scale with the Apple Watch. And, this is without considering the technical issues.

      • Space Gorilla

        Has Apple ever played a significant role in low end commodity segments? I can’t think of when. Maybe there’s an argument to be made that the iPod was cheap enough at times, it certainly went mid market, but it was never a cheap commodity, not really. Nobody is deciding between a cheap Android smartwatch and an Apple Watch. Well, it’s not zero, obviously, but it’s a small enough number not to matter. Just as ‘good enough’ Android phones clearly aren’t hurting iPhone sales, even in places like China where Apple was supposed to be far too expensive to do well.

      • Sacto_Joe

        I think you make a good argument for why Apple isn’t likely to go for the low end on wrist computers. Still, it’s an intriguing possibility. For the first time ever, Apple really has the jump on everyone, including, critically, an ability to hugely ramp up production capacity. Again, we’re talking about the low end Watch here, which can be considered our theoretical minimum. So three years from now, the price would drop to, say, $150 per. And maybe five years from now, to $100 per. Seen as an accessory to a low end iPhone or an “old” (by that time) iPhone six, I can see a massive potential appeal. And if Apple is, as I believe, interested in promoting this as an egalitarian solution, then why would they NOT want to go there? Because it would pull down the margins? Apple isn’t about the money, or it sure shouldn’t be. If Steve Jobs made anything crystal clear, it was that Apple should never be about the money.

      • Space Gorilla

        Thinking three to five years out, I can agree with the possibility of an iPod-like strategy, leaving very little price umbrella and pretty much no chance for any competitor.

  • High Quality LCD Screen + Assembly Touch Screen Digitizer for iPhone 6 Black

  • marcoselmalo


    I suspect Microsoft will be able to create a watch completely in software if they can sell a lot of Hololens helmets.

    I’m figuring that I can furnish my next house with milk crates to which I will then apply augmented reality holographic skins and textures.

    • Walt French

      I assume that semi-facetious is itself semi-facetious.

      I imagine Microsoft will duke it out with Occulus and maybe a couple more. But the market seems like that for game consoles, the geeky solutions will be of well-less-than-universal interest. While UNLIKE consoles, there’ll be several hardware players and a plethora of developers.

      • marcoselmalo

        I’ve been imagining a VR dystopia where such headsets are mandatory and removing your headset is a crime.

      • Walt French

        Kurt Vonnegut, in Harrison Bergeron, beat you to the punch. I remember it as part of Cat’s Cradle—he was fond or recycling characters and stories—but Wikipedia only shows it as a short story I don’t remember reading.

        Only a crime for high IQ people to remove the distraction. All in the name of equality in society.

  • Hubert

    I think the digital crown which trigger the App screen is not useful in the current Apple Watch. Apple can just let users select which Apps to add to the Glances screen from iPhone and repurpose Digital Crown to replace the “Favorite Contact” button and make the entire watch UI less complex.

    My biggest concern is how the current Apple design team did not see this issue? Apple spent so much effort to talk up Digital Crown during the launch as the next breakthrough UI coming from Apple but end up with a lousy function that is often not needed for most watch users.

    I’m going to bet the next version of Apple watch will have different button alignments, I like to see them move Digital Crown down to the center position and use it to call up Favorite screen. And move the other button to the opposite side of the watch and use it for less often used function such as App screen and perhaps power off.