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Watching Wearables Take Off as New Engineering Resets 2015 Tech Stage


Now that International CES, MWC, and yesterday's Apple event are over, we can really take stock of where the reality (vs. the dream) for device and engineering sights are set for 2015. Between the three events, we've seen pretty much all there is to see in terms of announcements and unveilings for 2015's first quarter, and probably first half. So, what's there to think about? A few things, really, in terms of broader trends that will impact how devices are targeted from an engineering and a user perspective.

Behind the face

Really, the important issues are what's inside, to borrow Intel's marketing genius. We are seeing that despite the cost, shrinking architectures are the definite path forward. Board space matters because device size matters, whether we're talking wearables, portables, computing or even industrial devices. Each of the three events this year have revealed some important engineering strategies and successes that will inform and direct the next new set of devices later this year and forward. Most importantly is the continued move to solid state drives (SSDs) only for computing and larger devices because of speed, weight, and now the drop in prices.

We see that System-on-Chip (SoC) and embedded Package-on-Package (ePoP) architecture designs are gaining in popularity which is increasing adoption and decreasing costs. The reasons for the increased preference for smaller logic boards, and hence the chips on those boards, as mentioned, are rooted in improving power efficiency, heat dissipation, and reducing space in smaller devices with greater battery demands.

Yesterday, during the Apple event, a prime example of what this type of engineering redesign means and its payoff was shown with a look inside the new Apple MacBook. The processor is Intel's fifth generation, Core M CPU series, codenamed "Broadwell," the first at the 14nm node, making it highly energy efficient. One of the many gains from this architecture and this processor's low power draw (5 watts) is that Apple was able to design the first fanless notebook. That space savings allowed for the device design to be sleeker and lighter yet with more battery space.

Batteries are another important re-design this year. With wearables we see the need to improve not just the CPU and chipsets to reduce power demands for space, but also for batteries and recharging. With the new Apple MacBook we see a game changer for the laptop/notebook sector with not just a smaller logic board and fanless design, but also with new, sculpted, tiered batteries, the first time we've seen this "customized" battery architecture. While this architectural and engineering feature is probably not going to get headlines, the impact of this redesign is going to have real implications across the tech industry and move us from designing around batteries to sculpting batteries around (or into) devices. We are all well aware of the long-time coming for a significant battery redesign, perhaps Apple just handed the industry an innovative moment to encourage more battery innovation.

Finally, while I'll not go into the impact and details in today's blog, the decision to remove ports on the new Apple MacBook is very important. Apple has presented the first notebook using the new USB standard, USB-C which is a single port for all connectors whether input or output. This will certainly come as a shock to consumers, just as Jobs shocked us when he took away the DVD player a few years ago, but likely this strategic decision is looking just as keenly into device futures as Apple did the last time it made a major port redesign.

Watch what you wear

Just as Tim Cook, CEO Apple, did yesterday, I put watches last. The most awaited news by consumers was the new Apple Watch, of course. But Apple is not hitting the market as a stand-alone, first mover, as we all know. Last week at MWC, we saw some really promising smart watches that are going to compete wrist-to-wrist with Apple. Much of the features and functionality of the Apple Watch that were highlighted in its September introduction were delivered. However, limitations of the sensors for body and health tracking led to some reduced features on that front. As Qmed reviewed, some of the sensors were scaled back due to issues with reliable readings based on different wrist conditions (e.g., greater hair amount, drier skin, etc.), and the ability to measure blood pressure was removed from this release because of issues with regulatory approvals that would be required. Whether this functionality will be offered as a later software or hardware upgrade, is not really clear at this point until tear-downs can be done and we know what types of sensors were actually used in the device.

While none of these scale-backs for actual health monitoring interferes with the fitness aspects of the devices, it does put the Apple Watch more squarely in the competitive realm of the latest smart watches released by Samsung, Huawei, Pebble (possibly the biggest competitive challenge to Apple Watch), HTC, Blackberry, LG, and many others as reviewed comprehensively by TechRadar.

Regardless of whether or not you were watching the MWC and Apple event news for your personal or for industry insight, they both gave us all much to think about and plan for. The offerings are absolutely real improvements over last year's devices. The issue of fashion and sizing for different human sizes and preferences, a mainstay complaint last year, is (finally) fading, and with the engineering improvements, battery innovation and still to be tweaked new sensor capabilities, the path forward holds much greater promise than it did last year.

The role of smart watches and wearables will grow quickly, that is an easy bet. Apple's move to provide the new Research Kit application series into its software line up is a similarly huge step forward to positioning smart devices (and soon to follow wearables) as a way to improve not just our individual health, but to make real leaps for the health of all of us. As we heard from keynote speakers at MWC, the knowledge economy is about to grow out of the mobile economy.

Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.
Written on Tuesday, 10 March 2015 13:19 by Lisa Ann Cairns, Ph.D.

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