Back in January, I did a post titled “Why Apple may not launch an iWatch anytime soon.” The gist of the piece was this: that Apple doesn’t enter markets particularly early, but rather enters at the point where the technology is ready for it to provide the kind of transformative product it’s used to disrupt the music player, smartphone and tablet markets in the past. At the time, my conclusion was that Apple would likely stay out of the wearables business entirely, until such time as the underlying technology was ready. However, given the other things we’ve seen from Apple in the last few months, I now believe it’s very likely we’ll see something in this category from Apple in the near future, but it won’t be a watch, and it’s likely that it will actually be several products rather than just one.
Smartwatches aren’t delivering on the promise, but the promise is flawed too
There are two big problems with the smartwatch market as it stands: firstly, the underlying technology doesn’t seem to be ready, which means it doesn’t deliver on the promise of the category. But secondly, the promise itself simply isn’t all that compelling for the vast majority of the general population. There’s a sense that if someone can just crack the smartwatch category it’ll suddenly explode, but I’m just not sure I agree with that. It still fundamentally seems like a solution in search of a problem at this point. But the coverage – as is so often the case – is driven by a very small number of people who likely are in the target segment and therefore talk up both the promise and the reality well beyond what’s justified.
A different approach solves some fundamental problems
For all these reasons, I’m still skeptical that Apple will release a product that’s identifiable as a watch. If I think about the thorniest technological challenge with smartwatches, it’s the fact that you’re having to squeeze both a fairly smart CPU and a decent display, and the battery to power them, into what has to be a very small form factor. That problem essentially goes away if you see wearables less as notification screens and more as off-device sensors, as Apple seems to, in contrast to Google:
If wearables are merely providing sensor extensions to the smartphone rather than trying to replicate smartphone functions, you can do away with the bright, big screen and the powerful CPU, and strip both down significantly. On some wearables, you might retain a small display, but it’s entirely possible that others would do away with it entirely. Put in the relevant sensors, a Bluetooth LE radio and a small CPU, and you’d be done. This would allow you to make the device significantly smaller and sleeker, make the battery last much longer, and also allow for many other form factors that could be worn in different places around the body.
Of course, HealthKit as constituted today will support third-party devices too, as long as they build the necessary hooks into their apps. But Apple has already added the M7 processor in the iPhone 5S to the list of sources for the iOS 8 Health app, and it’s quite likely that it will both extend M7 and other sensors into both other existing device categories and future ones, including Beats headphones. With the new extended accessory support through the Lightning cable, future Beats headphones could not just pass music one way and controls the other, but also sensor data from the headphones, the headphone band, in-ear sensors and so on. Given Beats headphones are as often worn around the neck as over the head, they could provide a steady stream of data even when not in use!
Other functions for an Apple wearable
All this is well and good, and fits with Apple’s HealthKit and other SDKs previously announced. Such a device could even display some basic notification information, also using developer tools already released in iOS 7. But once you have a device worn on the body, there are a number of other things you can do too:
- Identification – Tim Bajarin wrote an excellent piece about this for Techpinions, which I won’t repeat in full here. But suffice it to say that a second device on your person could potentially serve as a useful tool for multi-factor authentication, especially if one or both also have TouchID.
- Location services – the iPhone itself can serve as a useful trigger for a variety of location services, especially with iBeacon technology. But one of the challenges with using the iPhone itself is that you don’t necessarily always have it with you – for example when you first wake up in the morning, when you’re taking a shower, when you’re exercising and so on. Some people put their phone down when they get home and don’t necessarily carry it from room to room. As such, the phone would be much less useful than a device worn persistently on the body for triggering various smart home functions, for example.
- Security – much as TouchID has simplified life considerably for people who have passwords on their phones, a wearable in close proximity could allow a phone to remain unlocked. Motorola already does this sort of thing when paired with Bluetooth devices such as your car, and the next version of Android will allow it for others. It seems a natural function for an Apple wearable too.
- Payments – you could touch a wearable device on your wrist to a payment terminal instead of your phone when making payments, reducing friction. This could be closely tied to the Identification point but is a different facet.
Note what all these functions have in common: they use functions inside the device, not a large touch screen. Any interactivity could be performed by the iPhone rather than the wearable. All of this keeps the device small, relatively power-light, and flexible in form factor.
This all points to several devices, but not a watch
I therefore now believe that Apple will likely release several wearable devices in the coming months. It’s easy to imagine some that would be wrist-worn, others that could be clipped to clothing or worn around the neck. And unlike many of the fitness trackers out there today, which are hidden under clothing, at least some of these could be proudly worn outside clothing, which explains the significant investment Apple is making in hiring people with fashion-related expertise. Even the Tag Heuer employee Apple was reported to have hired this week was a sales executive, suggesting that the hire was more about retail presence and distribution than any watch-specific expertise.
This is, in some ways, a real departure for Apple from its past patterns, where it’s generally stuck to a single product in a category at launch. It took six years for Apple to introduce a second concurrent new iPhone, and two years for a second concurrent iPad. If it launches several devices at launch rather than just one, that’ll be new. But in this category, unlike the iPhone and the iPad, personal body shape, fashion preferences and the like will be far more important than they have been for smartphones and tablets, and as such it’s critical that Apple offer multiple options from the beginning. Given that these devices will probably provide not just standard fitness metrics like steps taken and calories burned, but also heart rate, sleep patterns and the like, it’s entirely possible that Apple will also sell these devices in such a way that an individual might buy several of them, either to be worn at different times (daytime vs. nighttime) or even at the same time.
I have no inside knowledge of Apple’s plans – I’m reading all the same news and rumors as everyone else. But I’m starting to feel more strongly than ever that the iWatch brand that gets attached to every story about Apple’s wearables effort is increasingly misguided. I’d be very surprised if we see the iWatch brand at all, because I simply don’t believe that what Apple is making is a watch. That’s not to say it might not show up at some point in the next few years, but I suspect it isn’t going to be Apple’s first device in this category.