Why the Apple Watch Can’t Be Very Thin

Reading the recent New Yorker profile of Jony Ive, I realized something about the Apple Watch.

“Ive places the new watch in a history of milestone Apple products that were made possible by novel input devices: Mac and mouse; iPod and click wheel; iPhone and multitouch. A ridged knob on the watch’s right side–the Digital Crown–took its form, and its name, from traditional watchmaking. The watch was always expected to include a new technology that had long been in development at Apple: a touchscreen that sensed how hard a finger was pressing it. (A press and a tap could then have different meanings, like a click and a double-click.) But the Digital Crown, a device for zooming that compensated for the difficulty of pinching or spreading fingers on a tiny screen, was ordered up by the studio. In a reverse of “skinning,” Ive asked Apple’s engineers to make it. In time, the crown’s role grew to include scrolling through lists.”

I realized that the Apple Watch can’t be very thin. Unlike a watch that you wind once a day, where you can either take the watch off to wind it, or pull it away from your wrist to grasp the crown, you need access to the digital crown all the time. As such, there has to be enough room under the digital crown to be able to grasp it.

Apple watch digital crown2

As you can see in the photo of the Apple Watch, the device is fairly thick, partly because the body itself is thick, and partly because of the sensors that protrude underneath the body. Unlike the iPad and MacBook Air, Apple will be limited in the device’s thickness, in part, because of the digital crown. Not only because of its diameter – it’s much larger than the crown of a watch – but by the fact that you need to be able to turn it comfortably, at any time. You can see that the digital crown is not centered according to the thickness of the watch; it’s a bit higher than the center line, because you need to be able to get a finger underneath it.

Apple will certainly be able to make a smaller digital crown, but there will still have to be enough leeway to be able to use it.

So, while the first Apple Watch certainly looks clunky, I don’t think we can expect a radically thinner model in the foreseeable future, at least as long as the digital crown is one of the main ways of interacting with the device.