At the height of my Apple fandom, I purchased one of the company’s most iconic and quixotic designs: a used Power Mac G4 Cube, the beautiful floating computer Apple initially described as “revolutionary” before putting it on ice — Apple’s words — less than a year later. Like many other people, I had fallen in love with the Cube’s design the first time I saw it, but wouldn’t spend $1,800-$2,300 to own one. So I waited until the price fell significantly and bought it used on eBay.
Back then, I wondered why Apple had discontinued its “revolutionary” computer so quickly. And why it hadn’t opted to “reintroduce an upgraded model of the unique computer in the future,” as its discontinuation press release had suggested was possible. After rebuilding my Cube inside and out, I completely understood the answer: Apple and technology had both moved on. Old replacement parts were still available, but new parts were smaller, faster, and more reliable. Apple had effectively redesigned the Cube to become the more reasonably priced Mac mini, unsympathetically abandoning the original form factor because it had fundamental problems.
Just like every major new Apple product released over the past decade, the Apple Watch’s first-generation design will give way to a better second-generation design in the not-too-distant future. Recall that Apple discarded the first iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Apple TV enclosures after only a single generation, in each case making major design changes to address early concerns. So although some people have suggested otherwise, this means that there won’t be an “upgrade” program to swap the S1 core of the Apple Watch when the S2 is introduced. Instead, there will be a whole new watch designed to entice new customers, and remedy early adopters’ complaints…
The key lesson I learned when upgrading the G4 Cube — admittedly years after it was discontinued — was that doing so wasn’t financially practical. Once I added up the costs of swapping the Cube’s CPU, RAM, hard drive, and (infamously easily damaged) exterior shell, I could just go out and buy a completely new Mac mini with identical or better specs, bolstered by a brand new motherboard, faster ports, and more efficient power consumption. Nostalgia was the only reason to spend time and money restoring a Cube.
It’s hard to accept this with any brand new Apple product — particularly a watch that Apple’s pitching to its own retail employees as “#timeless” — but Apple never freezes its products in time rather than improving them with evolving technologies, engineering, and industrial design concepts. This is the company that released an “iPad Air 2” with a 1.4mm thinner body as a major selling point over the year-old iPad Air. Even early Apple Watch adopters tend to acknowledge that there’s nothing so perfect in the first-generation design that it couldn’t be improved upon in a new model.
So what will the second-generation Apple Watch look like? History suggests that it will follow several key principles:
- The screen(s) will be extremely similar to the original model. If you’re expecting Apple to shift to a round display, don’t hold your breath. Apple never makes a major change in screen technology (or orientation, aspect ratio, size, or shape) in the second-generation version of a product.
- The colors will likely change, at least a little. It’s extremely common for a second-generation Apple product to introduce additional or improved colors. The iPhone and iPad both went from one color to two, while the iPod shuffle and nano bloomed in rainbow colors during their second-generation models. For the Apple Watch, expect anything from new anodized aluminum colors to new metals, but almost certainly no changes to screen bezel colors.
- It will rectify at least one obvious functional problem��identified in the original model. Now that watches are in the wild, some users are already reporting problems with inductive charging and the Digital Crown, while Taptic Engine failures were blamed for manufacturing delays across the entire line. You can be certain that Apple is working on fixes, and that something bigger — creating a more comprehensively waterproof housing where the Crown doesn’t develop issues — is on Jony Ive’s list. Creating a less skin color-sensitive heart rate monitor is likely on Apple’s engineering list, as well.
- It will be a more ergonomic design that Apple plans to keep around for at least two years. With rare exceptions, the second-generation version of an Apple product tends to stick around for a while. The iPhone 3G continued with the only-slightly-tweaked iPhone 3GS housing, and the iPad 2 shell stuck around for the third- and fourth-generation iPads. In each case, Apple really worked to make the products more comfortable to hold; the Watch may well be tweaked to become more comfortable to wear.
It goes without saying that Apple will want to make functional improvements, too. Additional health sensors, improved speaker and microphone performance, electronic watch bands, and perhaps even a camera could be on tap. Any of these changes could require changes to the shape and size of the next-generation Apple Watch, or be implemented invisibly with the right components.
Yes, it’s possible that Apple will do something different with the Apple Watch, and keep the initial enclosure basically the same for another year. This happened with the original iPod, which added a port cover and swapped Wheel technologies, as well as the iPad mini, which stayed the same outside except for a rear-facing microphone and Retina display. But even if Apple’s external tweaks to the Apple Watch design were on that scale, it wouldn’t offer internal upgrades to past customers. Every externally obvious change requires improvements inside, and letting customers swap internal parts is very, very low on Apple’s list of design priorities.
So if you’re thinking of buying an Apple Watch today, my advice is to be realistic: the only things that may change inside your first-generation Watch are the OS and the battery, when it’s in need of replacement. If you’re hoping for improved internals, start saving your money for the sequel.