No matter what Apple does, the next Apple Watch won't be perfect

Apple Watch 6 Blood Oxygen app
(Image credit: Michael Sawh)

Apple Watch, one of the best, if not the best-selling smartwatch in the world, might be getting its most significant makeover in four years. Those are the rumors, at least, that Apple, while not necessarily changing the shape or flattening the sides of Apple Watch 8, is nudging the popular wearable toward its own idea of perfection.

"Apple is always looking for the perfect watch design so that is not new," Creative Strategies Chairman and Chief Analyst Tim Bajarin told me via email.

Decades ago, Surrealist artist Salvador Dali made a keen observation about the limits of design or maybe the effort it takes and the fact that it's never finished: "Have no fear of perfection -- you’ll never reach it." That and Apple's possible redesign of what is essentially a metal and glass square puck got me thinking about watch design in general.

Apple Watch 7 models

Apple Watch 7 models (Image credit: Apple)

One design to rule them all

When Apple introduced Apple Watch in 2015, it broke the mold for watch fashion by offering, more or less, one look fits all. Sure, we got a million band styles, and some body colors and material differences, but the watch chassis were all the same. As someone who's collected watches (analog, early digital, pocket), this was a departure and I recall wondering if such a look could satisfy everyone. Turns out, it satisfied a lot of people.

Even so, is there such a thing as a perfect watch design? My gut says no, but I wanted to talk to another watch nerd, my friend Noah Segan, who, when he isn't acting, collects all sorts of beautifully designed watches. He doesn't own an Apple Watch and instead leans toward fitness bands like Wyze and hybrid digital watches with more outward-bound looks like Casio's GShock.

Still, he's seen enough of watch design to have a good sense of what the watch community loves (and maybe hates). I pressed him on what Apple might do to make the Apple Watch an "ultimate" watch.

Segan quickly rattled off some "perfect" watch designs like the exquisite Rolex Explorer and the Patek Philippe Calatrava. They're lovely and what these designs share is a certain simplicity that, as Segan noted, leaves room for design and art.

"The Apple Watch is probably as close as anyone would get," he said, "But because the watch itself is just a bright screen, the elements of design go out the window. It’s the difference between putting a painting or a poster on your wall and just having an image of that painting on your TV."

He's right, of course – turn off your Apple watch and the endlessly customizable watch face transforms into a glossy, blank screen. Where's the design, then? On the body, of course. And, as I considered the Apple Watch and what it might become, I realized that most of Apple's work would be on the body. An analog watch has the benefit of combining a physical and often complex watch face with an equally-well-considered body. Apple puts so much effort into its bands because, really, that's all it can do.

An unofficial render of the Apple Watch 8

An unofficial render of the Apple Watch 8 (Image credit: Jon Prosser / Ian Zelbo)

Is the Apple watch a watch?

In Segan's eyes, it doesn't matter if the Apple Watch stays square, goes round, shifts to a rectangle, and goes edgy with a new triangular look. "I think what holds back smartwatches isn’t the case, it’s that an Apple Watch is a mini iPhone, not a smartwatch."

That might be so, especially if you consider apps and call capabilities as what defines an iPhone. However, Apple has filled the Apple Watch with capabilities that take it beyond mere watches and iPhones. Early digital watches did a bunch of stuff, but never measured your heart rate, tracked sound, detected a fall, measured blood oxygenation level, or let you take an EKG.

Bajarin told me that Apple's quest to update and redesign the Apple Watch is built on the foundation of what is now eight years of experience. "They have done extensive research on how it has been used and what people really want and need. Health and emergency apps have risen to the top and doing a watch that has more of that focus is important and could drive even more customers to the Apple Watch," said Bajarin.

For most watch designers, however, function was more or less a solved art, which is why they spend so much time on design details.

Watch nerds being watch nerds

Over at Hoodinkee, a watch lover's publishing paradise, they once asked editors to describe their "ideal" watch and then had a designer mockup each of their design notions. What struck me was the design similarities. Yes, there's an eye-opening rectangular design that lacks a true face and has, instead, just a pair of curved slots for hours and minutes, but a fair number are circular chronographs - variations on a theme.

Similarly, Apple is possibly about to get credit for a major redesign when it might only make minor adjustments in size (Bajarin would not be surprised by a bigger screen), some edge adjustments, and new materials.

My point is, that Apple may be looking for the perfect watch design but it's unlikely to find it. Not that it matters. Apple probably isn't interested in attracting people like Segan. Its pure and understandable watch design is simple enough to satisfy many tastes, maybe more than the Samsung Galaxy Watch (at least those with the turning bezel) that tries a little too hard to ape classic watch design in the hope that watch fans will choose them.

Ultimately, there is no perfect watch design, analog or digital. There's just the good enough Apple Watch design that may be beautiful on its own merits.

Lance Ulanoff
US Editor in Chief

A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.