The Apple Watch, the Resolution Revolution, and the Future of Email

Matt Grantski
Development Lead

When the Apple Watch announcement made the rounds last week, we had a few talking points that I’m sure were echoed in offices and hangouts everywhere: Why wasn’t it called the iWatch? Who’s going to be the first rapper to name-drop “Apple Watch” in a lyric? (My money is on Killer Mike.)

Fiona Apple Watch
Is it anything like my Fiona Apple watch?
But what was especially intriguing for us at eROI, where we pride ourselves on crafting great experiences through email, is the question of what email will look like on an Apple Watch or other similar small devices integrated with the Internet. Information is still trickling in about the final specs, but so far I can’t find detailed information on how much of an email is viewable on the watch. Some early screenshots show examples of viewing mail on the Watch. The examples show a subject line and preheader of emails that come from friends, but no mock-ups of what a newsletter might look like.
Apple Watch Screen Shots
It was also announced that the watch will buzz when you receive a new email; but because the Watch is tethered to your iPhone, it’s likely that we would still rely on the phone for the majority of our mail-reading.

But, even if the Apple Watch doesn’t have a lot of support for reading email at this time, the reveal of this product is just another example of technology marrying powerful technology with small interfaces.

First we had PDAs, then we had smarter phones, and then we saw the creepy but not yet fully adopted Google Glass, and now we are seeing LCD screens the size of a cracker. For us at eROI, it is interesting to consider how this continuing trend will affect email.

First, a brief bit of background. Since 2011, the percentage of email opened on mobile devices has been gaining quickly on those opened on desktop, and in 2013, mobile became the majority. Today, more emails are opened on phones than in desktop clients such as Outlook or Gmail. While it’s safe to assume that this rapid growth will eventually slow down (mobile opens will never hit 100% because computers aren’t going anywhere soon), but it’s clear that the future of email will need to balance towards both desktop viewing and mobile viewing.

With new technologies for consuming digital media getting smaller, we’ll have to widen the possibilities for how we design email.

Today, when we design and develop emails, we cap the width of the email to 600 pixels for desktop clients, and focus designing for 320 pixels for mobile devices. This means that we make sure that our emails not only look good, but convey the message we want it to at a minimum of 320 pixels wide. There are a lot of estimations out there for what exactly the resolution of the Apple Watch is, ranging from about 300 to 380 wide by 375-480 tall. iPhones have not had a resolution that small since the first generation devices. My inital reaction was to assume that we won’t need to make any major changes to what we do. We already design for 320 pixels, and if that’s what the Apple Watch is going to be, what do we have to make changes for?

I think the key here is not to focus on the number of pixels can be represented on the screen, because how wide in physical dimensions the screen is will become the biggest factor. If the Apple Watch and the first iPhone have the same resolution, that doesn’t mean content is as easily readable on both. It tells us that the Apple Watch actually has smaller pixels. An image on it will appear sharper than on the old iPhones, but it won’t be the same size.
With smaller pixels, we’ll have to consider how images and text will appear with tighter rendering. Small text, like the type you typically see in the pre-header or footer, could become so small you’ll have to put the watch right up to your face to read, and that would look silly. A normal banner image with fine details will be reduced to different colored lines.

No matter how visually striking the initial email might have been, we’ll need fallbacks for those few who just want to get the message. The fact that someone is even opening a newsletter on their watch is telling you that they’re interested. We just have to make sure that the content they can view is worth following up on.

Bringing the point back around, email began in 1971 as a simple text transfer between two computers connected only through ARPANET. It could transmit plain text and only plain text. The future of email could very well find ourselves right back where we started on some devices that are super-powerful, but limited in how much design it can show you. Marketers are already emphasizing making custom designs for how their emails render in Gmail’s new tab features. The precedent has been set for putting in extra work up-front to make an email more attractive, even if it’s for only one email client with a 6% market share. If the Apple Watch or similar products in the future are only capable of showing text, then you can bet there will be strategies behind catering the email experience to that end.

If the email becomes stripped down to just the message, then the message had better be important.


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Matt Grantski
Matt Grantski, Development Lead at eROI.