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Apple Watch: Moore's Law need not apply

Posted 2014-12-08

Jean-Louis Gassée over at Monday Note has an interesting article talking about how cameras used to last for decades back in the analog days, while they're obsolete within a year or two now that they're digital. And how the same thing is about to happen to the watch: an old mechanical watch will keep doing its thing for decades (I'm assuming some upkeep here), but not so much for an Apple Watch:

❝There’s no carrier subsidy for the AppleWatch. That could be a problem when Moore’s Law makes the $5K high-end model obsolete.❞

I'm not so sure Moore's Law is going to make the Apple Watch obsolete within just a few years. Moore's Law states that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit (a computer chip) doubles every two years, and perhaps doubles in performance every 18 months. However, a smartwatch isn't limited by the number of transistors or the speed of those transistors, but rather, the battery powering those transistors. And despite the transistors in mobile CPUs getting smaller, they don't seem to be getting that much more power efficient at undemanding tasks.

This is a list of battery capacities for most iPhones, along with the number of hours they'll play audio and the amount of power playing audio thus takes:

(Source: Wikipedia List of iOS devices.)

Since the iPhone 3GS the power an iPhone uses to play audio has been between 130 and 150 milliwatts. So for an undemanding task like playing audio there has been no improvement to the iPhone in five years. (Caveats apply; I'm looking at the big picture here.)

As such, I'd be very surprised to see new watches released every year that significantly improve on the previous model's technical specifications. I think the Apple Watch is going to be like the Apple TV or Airport Wi-Fi base stations in this regard: significant updates happen rarely, but modest under-the-hood hardware improvements are rolled out once every year or two without fanfare and with little impact to the user experience.

I am going to be very upset when the 2016 model adds GPS, though. If anything, the watch v1.0's Achilles heel is going to be lack of GPS.

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