Dick Tracy Watch

The world seems to have decided that an Apple “iWatch” is coming, despite the fact that the talking heads in Cupertino have said nothing to the effect. Moreover, there is little more than conjecture as to how the device would function and what benefits it might offer. Yet, one company already went so far as to “give one away” to attract new users, while a BuyVia survey released today indicates that 26 percent of respondents would buy one site unseen, with another 36 percent saying they’re unsure but not ruling out the possibility.

Most have suggested that early versions of the smartwatch will act as a second screen for the iPhone (or presumably the iPad and iPod touch). Such a device would most likely surface notifications, display incoming emails, messages, and app status, and offer controls for music. That said, the device would presumably be too small for enjoyable Web browsing or video consumption, and too awkward and underpowered initially to offer telephone or camera functionality.

In all this conjecture, the biggest question that remains is the input method. Anyone who’s ever used an iPod nano knows that a tiny touch screen allows for only limited functionality. The experience is passable for music listening, but would be horrendous for any form of text input. The problem is only exacerbated when the device is worn on the wrist, thus rendering one hand useless in managing its controls. Given that Apple famously seeks to create magical products that “just work,” its unlikely that an iWatch would be a consumption-only device.

This leads me to believe that any wearable iOS device would have to be voice controlled (especially given that it could offload much of the processing required to the user’s nearby iPhone). And therein lies Apple’s greatest challenge and greatest opportunity in relation to the watch project. Since first releasing Siri, it’s intelligent personal assistant in October, 2011, Apple has been promising the world a magical voice controlled experience that has been anything but reality. Siri at this point is a novelty that lacks the polish or accuracy to live up to its promise. Anecdotally, the service is close to 50 percent accurate in voice recognition, when it needs to be greater than 95 percent.

Apple’s not alone in its pursuits of enhanced voice control. Google Voice Search is available on both Android and iOS and has been eating the fruit for lunch. As the headline of Farhad Manjoo’s Slate article reads, “Siri Is a Gimmick and a Tease: But Google Voice Search is getting close to fulfilling Apple’s broken promise.” Furthermore, Nuance, the company behind the initial Siri technology, has been putting voice control in everything from third-party mobile browsers to cars.

Unsurprisingly, chief Apple rival Samsung announced plans today to build a competing smartwatch. With the pair joining the likes of the Pebble, COOKOO, and Bambook smartwaches already in various states of development or commercial availability, Apple will get only one chance to deliver a compelling product in the category. The quality of its interface will play a major role in determining the verdict.

The above notwithstanding, Apple has certainly been working behind the scenes to beef up its voice recognition chops. Unlike on a phone or tablet, where voice control comes across as a nice-to-have, but wholly non-essential feature, on a wearable device it gets elevated to the primary interface. If the company were to come out with a dramatically improved service, it could be the thing that catapults the mythical iWatch into OMGIMUSTHAVETHIS territory.

With the world convinced that an iWatch is coming, and salivating over the myriad of possibilities, Apple has the perfect canvas on which to demonstrate the power and utility of a dramatically improved Siri.

The world is clamoring for these devices without really knowing how well they might work. There is little doubt that voice control is the answer to the smartwatch interface question, but the risk is that Apple (and even Samsung) release their products before the supporting technology is ready. Given Apple’s rocky track record with Siri and Google’s still evolving Voice Search, both companies would be smart avoid a premature launch.