If the iPhone and iPad have taught us anything it's that no one can predict what an Apple product will be like no matter how obvious it later seems in hindsight. Such will almost certainly be the case with the iWatch, or iBand, or whatever Apple ultimately calls their wearable, if/when they decide to ship it. But I do think there are real problems a wearable device can solve, and problems an Apple wearable is perhaps best positioned to solve.
The iWatch-er's dilemma
Apple is seldom first to market with major products. They don't cater to the early adopters. We suffered years of pain from Treo and BlackBerry and Windows Mobile, and Apple got years of real-world feedback before we got the iPhone. Likewise we were tortured by Tablet PC for a decade before the iPad became possible. In both cases Apple saw what the problems were, figured out how they could make something better, and then shipped into a maturing market.
Right now we're barely in the Handspring Visor stage of wearables. There hasn't been years of product on the market, suffering to see, and feedback generated that Apple can use to see where and how they can make something better. The market isn't yet mature and where an iWatch or iBand could succeed may not yet be clear.
There's also the question of positioning — would an iWatch be a flagship product like the iPhone or a companion product like the Apple TV? Would an iWatch be a business or a hobby?
Either way, I think there's little doubt that a first generation iWatch would be similar to a first generation iPhone, which lacked even a 3G radio, or a first generation iPad, which lacked even a camera. It would be a first step, but a first step towards a product line that eventually, generations later, yields the wearable equivalent to an iPhone 5 or iPad Air.
So, where could Apple start?
This is the easy one, the obvious one, the one on everyone's list. We've had popups since the iPhone launched and Notification Center banners since iOS 5. The idea of projecting popups or banners from the device in our pockets and purses to the device on our wrists is appealing in several ways.
My friend, for example, works in a hospital where the paging system is run on iPhone. She seldom has pockets in her clothes and the phone weighs down her lab coat. Thanks to her smartwatch, however, she can leave her phone on her desk and do her rounds, and all her pages show up on her wrist.
I have another friend who loves bike riding, skiing, and other sports and uses a smartwatch because it's difficult to hear it beep or feel it buzz when he's out and about, and nearly impossible to fish it out and check it when it does. The smartwatch lets him simply glance at his wrist and either make note of the information or see there's something urgent enough that he has to stop and handle it.
Personally I don't use a lot of notifications. High volume notification, for me, is indistinguishable from interruption. I only keep a very few on, but those I do keep on are really important to me and I absolutely don't want to miss them. Right now I miss them. I don't notice the beeps or buzzes either. I want something that somehow makes them damn-near un-missable.
The Apple M7 motion coprocessor allows the iPhone 5s to record acceleration, direction, orientation, rotation, and position data persistently without waking up the bigger, more demanding Apple A7 system-on-a-chip. As a result, I can use apps to track things like the steps I've taken. But I don't always have or want to have my iPhone with me, either because I've walked away and left it on my desk, or I'm working out and don't want it weighing me down.
Conversely, I've got most fitness trackers on the market and I've lost count of how many times I've forgotten to charge them or left them on the charger. I'd love something that would work seamlessly and interchangeably with my iPhone, handing off from one to the other no matter which I have with me at the moment. I'd love to not have to worry if I'm carrying my iPhone, iPad, or neither because my iWatch is on.
When/if breathing, blood, heart-rate, and other sorts of tracking technologies are feasible on mobile as well, it would only increase the value, like a forward deployed sensor array. It's a remote logging tool.
Update: Apple has introduced Health and HealthKit as part of iOS 8 to aggregate and propagate just this type of data. With it, and similar technologies in other areas, an Apple wearable could log much of what we do, even when we don't have an iPhone or iPad around.
Passcodes are something we know. Touch ID fingerprints are something we are. The third factor of security is a token, something we have. A modern implementation of that idea is the Bluetooth trusted device. There's a lot of debate and discussion about just how secure Bluetooth trust really is but in general the idea that coming into proximity with something can unlock that thing holds a lot of appeal. An iPhone that you unlock with a passcode or Touch ID that then projects that trust to a Mac or even a home security system would be convenient. An iWatch that unlocks your iPhone or Mac simply by being close to it, less secure but even more convenient. An iWatch that has to be close to your iPhone or iMac, in addition to a passcode and/or fingerprint is less convenient but full-on multi-factor secure.
Security is still too complex and too obscure. Touch ID is a great first step in making it more convenient. An iWatch or Apple wearable could be another into making our devices either more convenient still or more secure than ever.
I have a Hue light system at home. I have a SONOS speaker system. I control both with my iPhone, but it means my iPhone always has to be available to control them with. If it's in another room, or out of power, it's a major hassle. A wearable or a watch, if it could either communicate directly over Bluetooth LE, or if power allows, direct point-to-point Wi-Fi, then we'd have another remote control to use. As more and more objects become connected — become "smart" — a wearable as remote control becomes more and more valuable.
Update: Apple has announced HomeKit, a new framework for developers that standardizes home automation and "internet of things", including the ability to group actions together and use Siri for voice control. So, for example, you could say "Goodnight Siri" and HomeKit compatible devices would make sure your garage is closed, your doors are locked, your lights and music are off, and your coffee machine is set to help wake you up in the morning. That sure would be great to see on a wearable...
The idea of an iWatch as a watch has... limited appeal to me. I haven't worn a watch regularly for years, not since I started carrying a smartphone. I've tried out smartwatches but none of have stuck, and I still have a watch that's more for jewelry than utility. But it does suggest an interesting dynamic. Just like an iPhone wasn't a regular phone but a mobile computer with a phone app, the iWatch might well not be a regular watch but an ultra-mobile computer with a watch app.
There are two ways Apple could go with that. They could make a range of watches from popular to premium, from fun to fashion, from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Or they could sidestep the watch entirely and make a band that, among other things, tells time if it really has to.
Having a low-end fitness band style "shuffle" option, could not only obviate the need for a traditional watch-as-time-keeper for those who don't wear them, but could easily be worn alongside a traditional watch-as-jewelry for those who do. It's the advantage that fitness bands have today, whether worn alone, on a different wrist, or the same wrist as a traditional watch. It's also an advantage current smartwatches don't and can't have.
One day there could be a range of iWatch/iBand products, with something as simple as the iPod shuffle on the low end and as audacious — and expensive — as the Mac Pro on the high end, but how much of that range can be launched at once, and what's the best, most mainstream place to start?
6. And more!
LTE and Wi-Fi probably can't be put into any small-sized wearable any time soon. A Bluetooth connection to an iPhone is fine as long as they're within 30 feet or so. But what if they're not? Apple's been working on multi-peer networking, on creating a mesh that can be hopped from device to device, access point to access point, in hopes of getting online to get what small amount of information it needs. Could that help ensure better connectivity at greater range for a wearable?
If Apple gets into gestures and gaming on the Apple TV, could motion tracking in an iWatch work as a controller for both interface and action on the big screen?
If Apple gets into mobile payments one day, could an iWatch-as-token authenticate purchases even when an iPhone isn't handy? As a Canadian soaking in NFC (near-field communications) — my gas stations, fast food restaurants, grocery stores, shopping malls, etc. all support tap-to-pay — having payment authentication on my wrist, no matter how it's implemented.
Apple doesn't mistake chipsets for feature sets. They don't fall in love with technologies and try desperately to cram them into products. They figure out what matters most and how best to deliver it. That said, there are some technologies at play that seem to fit with an iWatch even if I'm not sure quite how yet.
What problems would you like like solved by an iWatch?
That's my list of problems I'd like to see solved by an iWatch but I'm curious to know — what are yours? Is there anything your current iPhone or iPad can't do that you think a wearable could?
Note: Originally published April, 2014. Updated August 2014.
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.