iWatch for Runners

As the internet is ablaze with rumors/predictions/leaks about what tomorrow’s Apple event might hold for huge industries like payments, healthcare, and identity management, I figured I’d focus on a more niche perspective. 

What might an Apple wearable hold for runners? I ask this question for mostly selfish reasons — running is my preferred mode of recreational exercise, and it’s when I do much of my creative thinking, as well as music and podcast listening. 

But I think focusing on a tight area might provide some insight into what we’re going to see tomorrow for a few reasons:

  • The first versions of a new Apple device usually get a few things extremely right, and leave some more “obvious” applications on the table for later releases (e.g. the iPhone’s focus on being a great widescreen iPod and phone, with features like visual voicemail, and only adding the App Store a year later).
  • Running is an area where Apple has done strong work before, particularly with the original “wearable computers” of this century: the iPod Shuffle and clippable iPod Nano. I still use the clippable iPod Nano with touchscreen for running, as I believe it is the best exercise-friendly portable music player in existence, despite having been released in 2010 and discontinued in 2012. I have a feeling that the team that built that product has been working on something else for a while…
  • Tim Cook hits the treadmill at 5:30 a.m. every morning. 

So what does an “insanely great” wearable running computer have to do? What could it do? Here’s my list:

  • Play music and podcasts, sans iPhone. This, to me, necessitates internal storage. Perhaps not a ton (2–4GB?), but some.
  • Play audio wirelessly to bluetooth headphones that STAY IN YOUR GODDAM EAR and are incredibly sweat/rain/snow resistant. Fidelity is nice but pales in comparison to durability.
  • Present an interface for displaying and controlling the audio that is incredibly easy to read even while jiggling/shaking/moving, through blurred vision. If I’m in that deep dark place in the middle of a run, when I can barely see, let alone think, I cannot be squinting at some miniscule iPhone-style interface. Control would ideally be via hardware buttons that are extremely forgiving with respect to missing touch targets — think something like the clicker on Apple headphones, but on the watch. 
  • Wireless charging without removal would be nice but not as necessary for running as it is for everything else (pedometer, payments, etc.).
  • GPS + finer-grained motion tracking for extremely precise distance/topographic info, stride data, injury warnings (crowdsource what kind of gait can lead to shin splints), apps that let you “race” your friends in different locations at different times, played back into your ear (Max, your brother is 20 seconds ahead of you after one mile. Step it up!). Being able to live track someone from an iPhone would be huge for long-distance runners and spectators —supporters could be sure they’ll catch you on the course and your watch could buzz as you’re getting near your fan club (this is the fantasy in which we all have huge fan clubs). 
  • Embedded chips inside your shoe (*cough* Nike) let you track your stride even more precisely, tracking pressure points, “hot spots,” and recommend replacement when yours are wearing out.
  • Respiratory, hydration, heart rate, blood information, nutrition; i.e. all the HealthKit stuff. Does carbo-loading work? Do I run better if I ate vegetables or pizza earlier in the day? What about if I tossed and turned in bed the night before? Am I getting fatter? Slower? What kind of workouts make me faster? Does taking a day off mean the next day is faster? What’s the best taper for a long race? 
  • In a dream scenario, although this might not be feasible for battery life, a cellular radio would open up a whole new arena of app opportunities. That race with my brother from before? Why not have it in real time? What if you’re in the middle of a competition and your parents want to “push” a power song to you to pump you up? What about getting buzz notifications when you’re close to someone in a pre-determined running group? How about sending music back and forth during a workout with someone you know? I’m sure there’s a million other ideas here. 

So there’s some thoughts on what a fictional iWatch might bring to a small set of passionate fans. Hell, I’d pay for the version that plays music and podcasts wirelessly and nothing else. 

If the device can bring this much value to runners, I think nailing this and a few other key niches will make it very popular to devotees right off the bat. Its value might not be immediately apparent to mainstream pundits, but the people who love it will really love it. 

In other words, it will be just like every other Apple device.