Simon Tian says he has in-hand a working prototype of something nearly unprecedented in consumer electronics: a smartphone the size of a watch. Not just a smart watch, but an actual, fully-featured smartphone running Google’s Android software that straps onto your wrist. Along with his team of nine at the Montreal, Quebec-based startup Neptune, he’ll be unveiling it in mid-April. Tian is only 18 years old—the founder and youngest member of Neptune.
Apple, meanwhile, is rumored to be working on a smartwatch that could act as an accessory to the iPhone, and may already have a team of 100 product designers working on prototypes of its own in its Cupertino, California headquarters. But unless Apple is going to surprise the world by unveiling an “iWatch” at an event anticipated this spring, Neptune is going to beat it to the punch.
Whenever Apple does get around to releasing an iWatch, it will face many of the same design, engineering and manufacturing hurdles that Neptune is currently wrestling with. That makes Neptune both an ambitious startup with an intriguing story of its own and a preview of the smartphone watch future that’s just over the horizon.
Neptune’s founder is an interesting story unto himself. Typically in Quebec, students go to two years of pre-college preparation in lieu of their final year of high school. It was during his time at this “college” that Tian started dreaming of skipping the rest of his education and starting a business instead. By May of 2012 he had founded a company, and operations commenced that October. So far, his funding has come entirely from family and friends.
While Apple is reportedly working on a smartwatch as a supplement to a smartphone rather than an alternative to it, Tian wants to disrupt the smartphone category itself. “I looked at the mobile technology industry, and I just realized that there was a problem,” says Tian. “You have iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, TVs, PCs, and they’re all independent devices. But there’s no one single device that can provide all the functionality. I founded Neptune Computer in order to solve this issue.”
Neptune could be ready show the world a prototype as early as mid-April, but testing it and scaling up manufacturing could take much longer. It took the company behind the Pebble smartwatch more than a year to go from a successful Kickstarter campaign to shipping its watches.
The Neptune smartwatch will be large for a wristwatch, with a touchscreen that is 2.4″ along the diagonal, and a resolution of 320×240 pixels. That’s exactly the same size and resolution as the screen on older models of Blackberry smartphones with keyboards. It will cost $395 at launch and even includes a tiny, 5-megapixel camera.
At its heart, the Neptune will run on the same “system on a chip” processors that power all smartphones. Tian says his company is testing chips from the usual suspects: Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Taiwan-based MediaTek. Some of these manufacturers offer chips that include not just the main processing unit of a smartphone and its graphics-processing partner, but also the chips required to run a phone’s radios, which connect it to the cell phone network, WiFi and Bluetooth. It’s this incredibly high level of integration that makes a phone as small as a watch possible.
“I already have [circuit] boards that are incredibly small—they’re much smaller than the structure of the watch,” says Tian. “And we already integrated this in some sort of watch structure and it’s working pretty well. It runs Android and has GPS, but it lacks some of the radios that will be in the final version.”
The biggest challenge Tian says his team has faced so far is finding batteries that can keep up with the sophisticated innards of the watch. “The miniaturization of different chips has gone very, very fast in the past two to three years,” says Tian. “What hasn’t been miniaturized as fast as the processor is batteries. There has been some increase in power density [of batteries] over the last two to three years, but it hasn’t been on the same scale as the miniaturization that occurred in the chipsets. That’s the main concern we have right now.”
Ultimately Tian believes his team will conquer this problem with a technique that has also been employed by Apple—cramming the guts of a device into the smallest space possible, and then filling the remaining volume of the case with a battery custom-designed to fill the entire space. This could allow the Neptune to carry an 800-milliamp-hour (mAh) or even a 1200 mAh battery, big enough to give it the same battery life as a typical smartphone. “It’s going to be 8-10 hours of talk time and 5-6 days on standby,” says Tian.
No shortage of apps—in theory
Other than hardware, the biggest problem any new smartphone entrant faces is convincing developers to create apps for the phone. (This is exactly the challenge that could ultimately defeat Blackberry and open-source phone initiatives like Jolla.) But the Neptune smart watch runs Android, but with a different “skin” on top called Leaf OS, so that the interface works on a screen not much bigger than a Matchbox car. The Neptune’s resolution, while relatively paltry, is “a pretty standard resolution in Android,” says Tian, which means that many Android applications will automatically resize themselves to fit the screen, and won’t require modification to run on the watch.
“We’ll have support for Google Play, which means the whole current [Android] app ecosystem,” says Tian.
What’s holding back the competition?
Recently, a successful Kickstarter campaign launched the Pebble smartwatch, which—with its black and white screen that doesn’t respond to touch, and extremely limited support for its own apps—is primitive compared to the proposed specifications for Neptune. Which raises the question: Why haven’t we seen more smartphone watches already?
One reason is that sourcing and building the ultra-miniaturized parts for a smartphone watch isn’t easy. Tian is cagey about how he’s accomplishing this part of the hardware engineering for Neptune, but he says he has an “experienced team,” and the connections required to manufacture the device.
“But mainly the reason why I think companies haven’t been looking into this is, first of all it’s very recently that technology has come to the point where it’s really possible to fit all of those chips into such a small space,” says Tian. “Secondly, it’s because no company has actually tested the market yet. So no company is willing to take the risk of introducing such a device, because no one knows if there’s actually a market for it.”
With Apple and Samsung reaping healthy margins from their smartphone sales, Tian argues that they have little incentive to introduce something that could take business away from those devices. But this is the opposite of Tim Cook’s stated philosophy, which is that if Apple doesn’t disrupt itself with new models (like the iPad Mini), someone else will. If a company as small as Neptune thinks it can replace smartphones with watches, it’s all the more reason to think that Apple is aware of the possibility and working on a device of its own.
Are the expectations for the Neptune too high?
Neptune is already taking “reservations” for its smartwatch on its website, but is not yet collecting credit card information. That’s a good thing, because the specifications Tian has promised for the device are extremely ambitious when compared with what’s already on the market. If, as promised, Neptune is ready to release information about a working prototype, we’ll see how those claims hold up.
It’s also possible that the company will launch a Kickstarter campaign when it’s ready to start taking pre-orders for the device. “We’re looking at Kickstarter as both a crowd-funding platform, as well as a good marketing platform that can get our product known world-wide,” says Tian.
Given the scope of Neptune’s ambition and the fact that details like its chipset have yet to be settled, it takes a great deal of faith to imagine that the device will ever ship, much less in quantities sufficient to satisfy consumers. Without a review copy in hand, it’s also impossible to know whether Neptune has the ability to produce a smartwatch that’s competitive with devices from giants like Apple and Samsung. But what’s most interesting about Neptune is that Android, integrated chips, and contract manufacturing makes it at least plausible that the next consumer technology breakthrough could come come from a tiny startup.