Data is Square (or Why Round Smart Watches are Just a Fad)

We seem to be at a fork in the road when it comes to smart watch design. There is a serious debate out there about whether smart watches should be round or square. The two major players in the smart watch era have already broken down different paths with Google’s partners going all in on round while Apple is pretty sure it’s hip to be square. Is one of these better than the other? Yes. Does that mean the better shape will win? No, Betamax says hello.

I think the Apple Watch’s nearly square design is the clear winner when put up against the countless round watches we see from Samsung, LG, and the like. I think the Apple Watch’s design is better because of one feature, but it’s the only feature that really matters: data.

All of the data you look at on the Apple Watch is best-presented on a traditional grid. Some data is tall and you can scroll, some is long and you can swipe, and some is just square and can all fit on screen at once. When you think of the types of things you want to see on your wrist (messages, emails, weather, activity status, or a timer), all of these are better presented on a squared off screen. You can display more data in a smaller space and you don’t have to cut anything off.

It kills me every time I see the cut-off interface of any round Android Wear watch. I writhe in pain when I see what Samsung has tried to do to make their own round-first interface. Now, I’m not saying round interfaces can’t be good because Samsung can’t make a good round interface, they struggle enough to make a useable rectangular interface. I do think that you are literally trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

The only reason watches were round was because that was the shape of the data they were presenting. The rotating hands of a watch face were not invented after they decided round was the only shape people would wear on their wrists. No, the invention of how data could be presented came first, and they designed watches to fit that data.

Smart watch makers are so attached to the past, attached to the traditional watch look that they are too afraid to do something different. The Moto 360 is not round because that’s the best design for the watch, it’s round because its a familiar shape and Motorola thinks people will be more willing to put it on their wrist. Apple has gone the other direction and either intentionally or unintentionally designed the Apple Watch around the data they are presenting. It may not look like traditional watches, but it’s a design that makes more sense for what people will use the Watch for.

As I mentioned in the intro, this could all be for not. Even if Square is better than Round in every way, smart watches are fashion pieces, and if people really want round then round could win this race. But I think that Round’s days are numbered. We underestimate people’s ability to get used to new things, to new paradigms. I think the experience of using a more squared watch will make more sense to people when they use both, and they will come around. It should also not be downplayed how powerful Apple is in their ability to be a trendsetter. The mere fact that there are millions of Apple Watches out there now, and presumably millions more after this holiday season, could make this another iconic Apple product. If the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and iMac (man, I’m glad they dropped the i) are any indication, that’s powerful ball when it gets rolling.