Why it matters: Imran Chaudhri is a former Apple designer that has a great deal to his name. He is signed as co-inventor with Steve Jobs on Apple’s original patent for the iPod, and the sole inventor listed on their first patent for touchscreen UI. The two technologies paired together would create the iPhone, but also spawned another lineage: playing around with an aftermarket watch strap for his iPod Nano, Chaudhri began prototyping a touchscreen Nano that could be worn as a watch more comfortably. Five years ago yesterday, that design launched as the Apple Watch.
Apple certainly wasn’t the first to market with a smartwatch, but the Apple Watch is a uniquely original product. Chaudhri, with (a lot of) help, effectively took a Walkman and turned it into a smartwatch over the course of his career at Apple. That career has now ended, sadly, because he left in 2017. There’s concern that the lineage the Apple Watch represents left with him. In less than those five years, it became the most popular wrist watch in the world, but its design has sat stagnant.
The Apple Watch has certainly become a much better product in that time, let that be clear. Battery life, the screen, functionality, all much improved through technological innovation. Apple has continued improving the internals and have sustained a perfectly suitable exterior and interface. But the absence of Chaudhri’s cheeky and clear-sighted perspective has been felt in the apparent purpose behind the product.
Chaudhri designed Digital Touch for the Apple Watch. The messaging feature sends animated symbols and sketches on all Apple devices. But it was most prominently marketed as enabling Apple Watch users to share their real-time heartbeats. Conceptually, Digital Touch is about alleviating the challenges of expressing emotion over text.
“Digital Touch was originally called E.T. for electronic touch,” Chaudhri said, and referenced the heart-warming fingertip scene in the film E.T. “I called it that for its potential as a new form of emotional connection.”
a few fun facts to celebrate 5 years of #AppleWatch— Imran Chaudhri (@imranchaudhri) April 24, 2020
here’s a photo taken of the team on launch day, that’s me in the centre. (the beard ages me but my wife @bella_bongiorno won’t let me leave home without it) pic.twitter.com/E1GufksZM1
Of course, it doesn’t work. Digital Touch was unpopular and dropped off Apple’s radar years ago. But they shouldn’t have abandoned the idea. In the current crisis, it’s impossible to restrict emotional connections to in-person interactions as many people (including myself) like to do to avoid awkwardness. I’d take fewer hours of battery life to have more meaningful connections with people I can’t see face to face any day. That was Chaudhri’s goal.
On smaller scales, Chaudhri wasn’t afraid to throw out the old in favor of the new (which is something Apple has struggled with for years). The loop watchband, for example, “was an evolution of the velcro Speedmaster straps worn by Apollo astronauts.” He made only very small tweaks to an established product but made it both more practical and chic. Similarly, the solar watch face, which depicts the sun’s position in the day-night cycle, is little more than a portable sundial. But that’s very useful for Muslims observing Ramadan and photographers trying to optimize lighting, apparently. It’s also rather beautiful.
As an astute Twitter user noticed, Chaudhri isn’t wearing an Apple Watch in his Twitter profile image. That, and the fact he’s running a company trying to redesign UI to be more personal, makes me wonder if he feels, as I do, that the Apple Watch has become too mechanical. The focus of a device strapped to the wrist should be about being personal, but sadly, as the Apple Watch has grown without Chaudhri, Apple has placed less focus on the human element.
Image Credit: Daniel Cañibano