iWatch and the difference between Apple businesses and hobbies

There's been a lot of media attention focused on the idea of an Apple iWatch lately. Given the nature of the stories, and the prominence of the new outlets fueling them, it feels like something is leaking, intentionally or otherwise. That said, unless and until Apple shows something new off on stage, it's impossible to predict exactly what they're going to do, and how they're going to position it. Before Steve Jobs held up the original iPhone, after all, many expected nothing more than an iPod classic with a click wheel. The same will likely prove true with an iWatch -- difficult to predict yet seemingly obvious in hindsight.

Yet for all their secrecy, Apple is a fairly consistent company. They don't make crap, and they don't release products that aren't carefully targeted. Everyone from irrational Wall Street analysts and investors to ennui-ed tech journos might already be playing out the holy grail, part 2, in their heads:

"A tiny-screen iPod with touch controls. A revolutionary smart watch. A breakthrough natural language communicator. An iPod, a watch, and a communicator. Are you getting it? This is one device...

"And we're calling it iWatch."

But what are the realities?

To date, Apple has released two kinds of iOS devices: full-on businesses, and hobbies that test potential future businesses but mainly serve to add value to current businesses. The iPhone and iPad are both full-on businesses. They sell in the hundreds of millions, earn in the billions, and even removed from Apple they'd be large and valuable companies in their own right. The Apple TV is a hobby. It sells in the low millions, earns in the millions, and while growing, is currently little more than a rounding error in Apple's profits column.

Apple's businesses have entire ecosystems built around them. They run a huge library of apps and support an incredible array of accessories. Apple's hobbies are fortified by channel partnerships rather than SDKs and APIs, and boast no accessories beyond the cables required to use them.

At first blush, an iWatch-type device feels less like a full-on, iPhone- or iPad-sized business, and more like an Apple TV-style hobby. Given the constraints of size, and what that means for screen interface, battery, radio, and more, the imposed feature set makes it seem more likely Apple would position it as yet another way to add value to their existing iOS devices, rather than as an equal-level iOS device in its own right.

You can't get all the functionality of an iPhone on your wrist without strapping something the size of an iPhone to your wrist. You can't get Siri and iCloud, Maps and iTunes in the Cloud, and everything else that requires an Apple A6 processor, Retina display, LTE, GPS, and Bluetooth 4.0 radios, and more, without the space to pack it all in.

What that leaves us with, as many have predicted, is a peripheral, a concentrated window that gets content pushed and streamed to it, much like an Apple TV, but can also be used to push queries and commands back, unlike the current Apple TV. Something that has channel partners like an Apple TV, but more Nike than HBO, geared more towards extreme mobility than static entertainment. And I imagine the opportunity for accessories could be exponentially larger than the Apple TV.

As a hobby, however, and given how many people have already eschewed watches for convergence devices that include watch-like functionality, namely iPhones and other smart phones, that potential market may not seem overly large. Sure, the idea of elegant, Jony Ive designed, black-and-slate and white-and-silver ultra-thin, ultra-precise time pieces might lure some back, but how many and for how long?

With anything less capable than an iPhone, the business opportunity will be less than an iPhone. At least at first.

Like with the Apple TV, wearable technology may start as a hobby for Apple, but also as an area of intense interest. The early embodiment of ideas they have, it might be a similar string they pull to see where it takes them.

Technology and market realities aside, for anything iPhone- or iPad-like, Apple would have to have an iPhone- or iPad-level use case to make. In 2007 Steve Jobs showed why a full-screen, multitouch device with a compelling user experience instantly obsoleted the resistive, stylus- and keyboard-driven not-very smartphones of its time. In 2010, Jobs made a case for how the iPad was significantly better at specific set of things than either a smartphone or a laptop. A watch or similar class iOS device would have to likewise obsolete, or provide a compelling use-case for it to be considered an independent and important device in its own right.

A hobby, on the other hand, just needs a good hook, be it "HD iTunes content and more on your TV" or "Everything important on your wrist."

Which is not a disparagement in the least. The Apple TV is a terrific device that works well enough on its own, but also provides significant additional value to iPhone and iPad owners. Years ago, Apple managed to cram rudimentary voice features into the nearly buttonless iPod shuffle. Tomorrow, who knows what they could accomplish with natural language and small-screen multitouch controls, much less with fast, just-in-time connectivity to an iPhone or iPad.

Apple's not done with their quest to push computing to ever-broader numbers and kinds of people, and types of use. Just like Apple IIs were easier to use and more accessible than what came before, and Macs after them, and iPads after them, there will be something next. There will be people for whom even a tablet is too much computer, and a TV or living room box, or a watch or wearable pod is far more appropriate and appealing. And even if, given limited interface considerations or screen sizes, portability or component space, neither is ever as powerful as full-on iOS devices, they could still be every bit as empowering.

Either way, we'll only know Apple's iWatch plans for certain when, and if, they hold one up on stage.

(I spoke about a lot of this on the iMore show, and Leo Laporte, Andy Ihnatko, Don McAlister and I discussed it extensively on MacBreak Weekly earlier in the week, so check those out for more.)