Apple’s wearable wristwatch rumors are heating up again, and this time both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are chiming in with their own un-named sources saying that Apple is working on an iWatch concept of some kind in a top secret lab in Cupertino, California. Both publications independently claim that Apple is already testing the iWatch concept with curved glass display and running on the iOS platform, though neither can provide any hints as to when such a watch may be available for consumers to purchase.
The idea of a wearable computing device is not new, and Apple may quietly have enabled the concept even before the iWatch with its sixth generation iPod Nano tapping ecosystem partners to create wrist straps for the diminutive square-shaped music player that can run basic pre-loaded apps.
The success of the sixth generation iPod Nano made it even more curious as to why Apple re-designed the music player to bear a rectangular shape in its most current iteration, moving the device away from the wearable watch concept. However, the move may be pre-emptive if Apple is to go Dick Tracy on us with a James Bond-worthy watch that can potentially open the doors to new avenues that were not possible with the iPhone.
The Need for Wearable Computing
A wearable watch could potentially make and receive calls, link with an iPhone to display text messages, show body activity via sensors on your clothing, tap into Siri, connect to the Internet, and discretely display maps and nearby points-of-interest as you’re out traversing the city. The technology, and perhaps the need, for discrete, wearable computing technology is here.
In recent years, the increase in technology thefts, muggings, and burglaries surrounding Apple’s iconic and visible white headphones that are bundled with the iPod of yore and the iPhone of now have raised visibility for the devices. Local law enforcement officials continue to advise constituents to not use their iPhones in public–what good is an iPhone that has ubiquitous connectivity to the treasure trove of knowledge that we know as the world-wide web if we cannot use it at will?–to avoid muggings and thefts. Certainly, a more discrete iWatch would help mitigate some of the dangers of using your iDevice in public if it’s hidden, discrete, and can be commanded when you need it.
So perhaps we need an iWatch to avoid thefts and muggings, and perhaps our bodies need to tap into an iWatch to warn us that we’re leading unhealthy sedentary office lifestyles. There have been countless accessories in recent years that attempt to make us lead healthier lifestyles from Nike’s popular FuelBand that’s been worn by Apple CEO Tim Cook to challengers like Jawbone Up, Fitbit, LarkLife, and others. Fitness-oriented hiking and trekking watches made by Garmin also tap into the iPhone–and compatible Android devices–via a smart app and some Bluetooth pairing as well. And the beauty of this is that the iWatch can reduce the clutter on your wrist with an always-on device that can monitor everything your body does, potentially even your pulse, blood pressure, activity level throughout the day, and more.
The Maturing Market
And with our needs, Apple is closely monitoring the market and waiting for the moment to arise when it could introduce such a device. This is guided by a number of complex economical factors, but at the heart of it all, Apple wants to ensure that the technologies that power the iWatch will be mature enough to create a smooth user experience while at the same time hoping that an iWatch doesn’t cannibalize the lucrative iPhone and iPod profits.
The screen technology for wearable computing is certainly here. Corning has made its Gorilla Glass 3 even thinner and more scratch-resistant than ever, and the company’s bendable Willow Glass technology can allow glass to be bended and worn. Combined with flexible display panels, this could potentially allow Apple to even create an all-glass shell for the iWatch and have the glass molded to fit each user’s wrist.
Advances in micro-processor designs are allowing smaller circuitry to be introduced to conserve space, and Apple has shown that it could push the battery life bar. Given the iPhone 5’s paltry battery size and the longevity between charges the device can sustain–compared to rival Android devices with the same battery capacity–Apple is showing that it could stretch battery life in the harshest of environments, including powering LTE radios, a larger display, and more connected apps.
Battery Life May Be the Bottleneck
But battery life will remain the single largest issue plaguing wearable computing technologies. While I typically don’t mind charging my smartphone overnight every night, I think that stems from the belief that we recognize smartphones as tools for doing things today, rather than as an extension of our body. Smart watches, to which the iWatch will belong to, is a category where the devices will always be on our bodies and will therefore be viewed as an extension of our bodies physically.
These devices will need to last multi-days on a single charge and Apple and other challengers will need to develop apps and technologies into the watch that make sense. Sure, playing Angry Birds on a watch may be cool and could make the iWatch entertaining, but if it draws battery faster, then the iWatch concept may not be meaningful.
And while battery life remains to be a challenge for Apple in the iWatch space, advances in battery technology could help pave the way for the iWatch. New bendable lithium batteries can have battery packs that can bend to fit your wrist and save space and allow for a more natural design.
What is an iWatch?
A watch, by its nature, is a tool that is utilitarian with the constant tik-toks providing the key to accurate timekeeping. Solidified in Swiss history with its artful craftsmanship and reimagined by the fashion industry as a status symbol, the watch was facing obsolescence with the rise of smartphones–why carry two things when you can carry one item that does so much more? The iWatch then must bridge the gap between timeless timekeeping with its utilitarian approach and the accessibility of a smartphone, and reports are suggesting that Apple will be bridging that gap by loading its iWatch with the iOS software.
As the iWatch looks forward to joining the ranks of the iPhone and iPad before it, the device that is worn around your wrist will potentially serve as a gateway to the world around you, and Apple will need to define what gets into the watch through its software design–allowing too much in would be a traffic jam on a small screen, and allowing in too little information would lead to a crippled device. Pebble and MetaWatch are two devices that allow information from the phone to be sent to the watch so the watches are companion products. There are other designs, like the Neptune Pine, can make calls and are standalone products. And another option is a hybrid approach, like that from i’m Smart where the watch runs the full Android OS, but is crippled to make it a companion product. Apple could be exploring all three approaches.
Meaningful Design to Stay Relevant
As the smartphone and tablet markets are now maturing, Apple will need to find new revenue sources to stay relevant and profitable. Investors have become worried if Apple could sustain the growth it has been demonstrating the last few years with increasing numbers of challengers to this competitive space. And much like how Apple had diminished its reliance on the Mac, then on personal computing (it had dropped ‘Computer’ from its ‘Apple Computer’ name to rebrand to ‘Apple Inc.’), and more recently the iPod to focus on the iPhone. So too Apple must keep evolving and rely less on the iPhone in favor of new markets. Whether this is the much rumored Apple iTV rumor of recent years, or the speculated Apple Car that Steve Jobs wanted to create before his untimely death, or the iWatch that Tim Cooks and company have been working on in some secret lab is unclear. What is clear is that Apple must define and redefine this market so that it’s easy and accessible to consumers and remove all the technology to make it seamless.
With an iWatch, consumers don’t want to look like the bionic human that Verizon so often depicts in its Droid commercials, especially with an Apple brand attached to it. They want something that’s meaningful and simple, much like how the Nest thermostat removes all the technologies and things just work so you can control the temperature in your home while you’re there next to the thermostat or at your office manipulating your home’s AC from your phone’s app.
The challenge with the iWatch, as I’ve touched on, is that it’s an extension of the human body and is personal. With San Francisco hippies having challenged cell phone radiation policies, I cannot imagine my neighbors on the Left Coast will be thrilled if it poses more harm than good, and Apple will need to be cognizant of any risks and benefits to the human body given the increasing scrutiny that it has received from its factories in China through partner Foxconn.
Whether the iWatch will be a standalone device that takes and receives calls or one that connects to the larger iEcosystem is unknown, and Apple’s research team will have to explore what makes sense in terms of costs, design, size, and functionality. One thing that seems to be known is that the iWatch, according to the Times and the Journal, is that the iWatch will be running on the iOS software. Existing wearable technologies today have used Bluetooth technology to pair with a user’s current smartphone. Apple’s iWatch could be a companion to an iPhone or a standalone device, and we probably won’t know until Apple announces this product.
iOS Integration Provides Yet More Revenue
iOS integration makes sense. Apple came out with iOS with a tablet UI and tablet UX with the iPad, and we can imagine an iWatch-centric iOS where apps will need to be slightly tweaked to make them compatible and meaningful for the iWatch form factor. Being a relatively new computing category, Apple would not have to imagine every scenario of how the iWatch would work–its loyal band of third-party developers can share in that burden and Apple could share in the profits through app sales.
More importantly, where the numbers count in terms of Android versus iOS activations, Apple could claim an even higher number for iOS and help to boost its market share and attract and retain developers. The iWatch would be yet another avenue for iOS growth.
And Apple’s chief rival in the Android space, Google, has already been tinkering with its own wearable computing form factors. Google-owned Motorola Mobility had released the MOTO ACTV, a smart watch that is mostly used to track your runs and workouts while at the same time displaying notifications for text messages, Twitter alerts, and Facebook notifications. Google more recently is working on trying to commercialize its efforts with the Google Glass project to make it a meaningful piece of consumer tech.
Information and Privacy
For someone who has heart disease, a smart watch could potentially monitor pulse and blood pressure continuously and notify the wearer’s doctor if there are any sudden spikes or increases. The benefits for a wearable computing device are certainly there as it is constantly with you and can constantly collect information through an array of sensors. However, the challenge for large tech companies like Apple and Google is increasing public distrust. Privacy issues and certainly medical privacy issues may be challenges for Apple to overcome with its iWatch if it wants to enter the medical segment with its watch concept.
Apple likely has the pieces to a disruptive piece of technology on the market right now, and potentially one that is cheaper and more affordable than the iPhone or iPod Touch today. This could potentially solve the problem to Apple entering emerging markets with its iPhone and help the company grow in a different direction as smartphone sales are bound to show slowdowns in established markets like the U.S. and Europe. The iWatch is Apple’s new iPhone, much like how the iPhone was Apple’s answer to a slowing PC market. And given that Apple didn’t invent the smartphone but pieced together various technologies in a way that made sense, the iWatch could