The killer app for the Apple Watch is Chinese

If you spoke Chinese you'd know what to do.

If you spoke Chinese you'd know what to do.

POSTED 2014.09.15 by

Among all the fawning that accompanied the unveiling of Apple Watch last week, a few grouches held fast, with salient points: What about the battery life? Will it be waterproof? Does it pass the cuff test? And where is the killer app that would forgive all these shortcomings?

Apple itself seems to believe that its killer app is the “Digital Touch”-based messaging feature, which lets you tap, sketch and heartbeat your way into the affections of other Apple Watch wearers. Jonny Ive even gave the app its own dedicated second button, which seems uncharacteristically profligate of Apple, button-wise.

Kevin Lynch’s unveiling of this new communications mode during the keynote seemed to puzzle attendees, and Twitter. It wasn’t clear to many whether this is a stroke of genius, a gimmick, or just creepy. Sending your heartbeat to a potential mate… has cringe potential. And drawing a fish to invite a colleague to lunch… is weird, and not terribly convincing as a first stab at explaining why this feature is killer.

But this weekend I saw the light.

I was using the Chinese dictionary app Pleco on my iPhone to to look up unfamiliar Chinese characters. I’ve gotten pretty good at using its cursive input method, and no longer need to look at the screen while writing. I can input characters at speed, but am slow compared to native speakers, whose cursive writing style using pen and paper is blindingly fast, if illegible to learners like myself.

I was absentmindedly fondling my old-school Swatch watch while reading Chinese when it struck me: A touch-sensitive watch face is an ideal size and shape for inputting Chinese logograms — better even than a smartphone, because you can do it continuously, and inconspicuously. Just frame the watch face with you thumb and middle finger, then “sign” with your index finger.

That’s enough to let another Apple Watch wearer read your full-fledged Chinese texts in real time. You’re not even dependent on OCR software to transcribe your scribbles into machine-readable text — the only recognition ability needed is that of another human.

And just by tweaking the app a little bit — say, by adding a horizontal swipe gesture to indicate you’re on to the next character — you could turn it into a highly efficient cursive messaging app that saves your scribbling for delayed reading. You could discretely transcribe meetings from under the table, or tell your boyfriend the boss is keeping you late while using your watch behind your back.

Why is the Chinese script better suited for this medium than the Roman alphabet? It’s all about information density: In Chinese each character represents a syllable, and most words comprise one or two syllables. Chinese characters are far more information-rich than a single Roman letter — they have to be, as there are far more of them to choose from. This means you can get far more meaning across in one screenful of scribbling. While you could write w-a-i-t-f-o-r-m-e, which requires the processing of nine sequential screenfuls by the other party and guessing where the spaces go, in Chinese you’d be done with 等我 — two screens. Trying to pack in whole words comprised of Roman letters onto the screen is a nonstarter for anything longer than ‘me’ — alphabetic words just get too long, too horizontal. Chinese characters, on the other hand, have always been built to fit inside a square.

In other words, Chinese speakers have a ready-made system for packing as much mutually understandable information as possible into a 42mm square. The killer app for the Apple Watch is the Chinese language. The rest of us are forced to draw fishes and hope nothing gets lost in translation.