Last week Apple employee No. 66, Bruce Tognazzini, who founded Apple's Human Interface Group, took to the web to publish his thoughts on why an Apple-made smartwatch would be a fabulous idea. This week both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published stories that said Apple was "conceptualizing and even prototyping" smartwatch designs that evolved from an old curved-glass iPod idea. Is Apple seriously making a push for smart tech on your wrist?
Last year Pebble broke all Kickstarter records and raised more than $10 million to bring an Android and iOS compatible e-paper smartwatch device to life. Over 70,000 folks pledged money, and it seems likely Pebble will ultimately sell many times that total. There's also the Metawatch Strata, another Kickstarted device. An Italian company has its own i'm Watch, an Android-powered device that may, or may not, step on Apple's trademark toes. And another smartwatch project, the Starfish, tried to stir up customer enthusiasm at MacWorld just the other week.
The idea of a wearable companion for the expensive smartphone in your pocket is bubbling to the boiling point--these novel, sometimes home-brewed efforts are achieving successes that prove it.
If you're wondering why you'd ever want to wear a smartwatch, you're probably not alone. After all, it's yet another bit of tech to lose or damage, and let's not remember that you'd have to charge it regularly alongside your phone, tablet and laptop. The idea of a Dick Tracy-like device may seem as incongruous as seeing someone gabble on a mobile phone back in the 1980s.
But Pebble's functions, like that of some of its peers, gives away several great reasons for buying one. Firstly we are all used to grabbing our phone out of a pocket or purse to see the time, check our emails/SMSs/social media info and so on. It's risky--you could drop your phone, get it wet in the rain, or expose it's location to a pickpocket. But Pebble promises to show all this info on your wrist, wirelessly pushed from the more powerful communications hub of your smartphone.
Pebble's sensor array also integrates with apps to deliver the kind of health-tracking tech that Nike's making a ton of money out of, Future, cleverer smartphones could certainly do more than just track your jogs or cycle rides--such as your emotions.
More ambitious ideas could even include Bluetooth connections for voice commands. We know Apple's been working to make Siri smarter--so how about a remote voice-controlled interface that means you don't have to touch on the phone's screen at all?
Bruce Tognazzini very smartly pointed out that as well as being a saleable device by itself, an Apple iWatch could potentially be a huge data capturing machine for Apple. iWatch wearers, he imagined, could collect vast amounts of geo-spatial data to help populate Apple's traffic data and maps in incredible resolution--including the vertical data that GPS maps tend to skimp on. Add in in-building navigation, with real time data grabbed from iWatches, or even pushed to your own to help you navigate around an unfamiliar office or superstore, and it's more powerful.
We know Apple and a multitude of other folks are investigating mobile payment tech too...but resting a smartwatch on an NFC sensor pad in a store to effect a payment seems just more user-friendly than slapping your phone down.
And assuming an iWatch did implement Siri, then this could considerably boost the amount that people use the service. Each Siri query then helps Apple understand what data people are looking for, which may even give it a leg up over Google in the future of web searching.
Let's not overlook the cash cow potential. The wrist watch industry is slumping, with little innovation over the past few decades. It seems ripe for a dramatic, tech-forward pivot, and this feels like exactly the kind of terrain Apple loves to invade and make all its own.
Millions of iWatches, especially ones priced at a reasonable $100-$200, could even create a whole new revenue stream for Apple. They may make up for the fact the computer market is drying up, and even the smartphone market is maturing. Growth is the key...and a cheap device like this could also be a gateway device tempting users to buy iPhones or iPads.
Of course, there's a risk that with such an avant-garde tech the entire enterprise could blow up in Apple's face, leaving the public cold, and iWatch devices unsold on shelves. There aren't many examples like this in Apple history--the Newton, the Pippin games console to name two--but they've been a little less frequent lately, and Apple's missteps have been confined to software ventures like Ping and Maps. Hardware earns Apple the biggest bucks of all now, and a big hardware mistake would damage both its revenues and its post-Jobs public image.
So whether or not an iWatch will happen is still a mystery. But if the WSJ and NYT are any indication, you can bet a business planning team in Cupertino is mulling it over with a complex spreadsheet at hand at this very moment in time