The iWatch conundrum

If Apple makes it, would it sell? And if the market isn't there, would Apple bother?

For the past month or so, the hot topic among Apple users has been the iWatch. My RSS and Twitter feeds have blown up as bloggers and analysts have had a field day conjuring up futuristic what-if scenarios about what an iWatch would do, could do or should do -- and whether Apple would ever actually announce such a device.

Many digital bits and bytes have already been devoted to the mythical iWatch, with everyone from former Apple GUI guideline author Bruce Tognazzini to Computerworld's own Jonny Evans weighing in on the concept -- often in great detail.

I'm not yet sold. But I'm not willing to write off the possibilities. (Neither, apparently, is Samsung, which is pressing ahead with its own iWatch rival.)

Without anything real to evaluate hands on, it's almost impossible to predict the real-world usefulness of a new product. Much depends on the design, and how that design is implemented. Far too many gadgets have failed to live up to their promise, which is why they end up shoved in drawers and forgotten.

Why an iWatch?

When I think of an iWatch, I keep coming back to the question: Is this a good idea? If so, why? I asked a couple of Apple experts, Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, and curiousrat.com's Harry Marks to weigh in with their thoughts.

"If Apple makes an iWatch - and I don't think it's imminent, meaning this year - it will be positioned as an accessory to iPhone, iPad, and Mac," said Bajarin. "That is the real opportunity: to add to the strength of the ecosystem and the 'works better together' solution."

"Many smart watches are doing baseline things like body monitor and sensors, which [an iWatch] may have," he said. "But I think the biggest opportunity is for glanceable data. Things like: when an email comes in, a phone call that just came in, etc. I can see this as a strong conduit for notifications. This way the watch becomes a visual display for glanceable info. [The iWatch] may not be where you read or answer an email, text, or phone call, but you can use it to decide whether or not you want to need to get your phone out and respond."

Even that might not be enough for some users, among them Marks. His main concern: Would an iWatch be useful enough to entice buyers to plunk down their money?

"If Apple did release a watch, it would take quite a bit for me to be interested," Marks said. "It would have to have all day battery life; FitBit technology; GPS; Bluetooth support for headphones; ample storage for music; a logical and efficient way to respond to messages without using voice and without requiring me to pull out my phone; interchangeable bands; and must cost no more than $150. Any more than that and I'll spend my money more wisely on a real watch."

Disruptive products

When Apple enters a market -- or attempts to create a wholly new market -- it does so having solved a fundamental problem in a way that has eluded competitors. For instance, the original iPod was designed to quickly scroll through large lists of music using a slick, momentum-sensing click wheel. Competitors who followed missed the point completely: they imitated the click wheel look without actually implementing the navigational concept behind it. The copy-cat mentality based on a missed point ultimately led to the failure of competing products.

Another good example: the iTunes Music Store introduced a quick and effective way to purchase and transfer music to an iPod, not only providing a straightforward and legal way to acquire songs, but creating a chicken-and-egg situation for competitors who wanted to compete with Apple in music but lacked all of the components of an end-to-end ecosystem. iTunes and the iPod were great by themselves; they were even better when working together, which helped spur the success of Apple's initiatives in the music industry.

That said, would an iWatch that augments the iPhone with a proliferation of sensors and communicates via wireless protocols be enough to make a great, mass-market product?

Marks, like me, is dubious: "There's no point. What's so special about receiving message alerts and tweets on a watch if you're going to have to pull out your phone anyway in order to respond to them? Is just knowing that they're there really worth the expense of another screen?"

Bajarin had similar thoughts. "I'm just not sure what problem it really solves. Yes, it is convenient, and would be cool, but those are all things that appeal to the early adopters. I think its important to think through the level of disposable income the mass market has (it isn't much) and right now they are gobbling up iPhones and iPads."

I'm skeptical when it comes to the concept of wearing a technological bracelet, but then I think back to product announcements like the iPhone, with its first commercial multitouch screen technology and finger-based scrolling. I was skeptical about the phone's performance, battery life, and the usefulness of gesture interactions in the real world; impressive tech demos don't always translate well in day-to-day life. But the way Apple engineers implemented the technologies quickly won me over.

Early iPhone skepticism

Take a look at the original iPhone keynote in 2007, and you'll hear the audience go crazy for the "widescreen iPod with touch controls" announcement. That's because everyone could relate to a larger screen for watching movies on the go. Crowd reaction was even greater for the "revolutionary mobile phone" announcement, simply because most people in that audience were sick of phones of the day. The third feature -- "a breakthrough internet communications device" -- elicited a more muted response. But in retrospect, it's clear that the always-on data connection in concert with more sophisticated software turned out to be as revolutionary as the pioneering user interface and gestures. Yet, those were the very features that elicited the least cheers.

Why? Because the 2007-era audience hadn't imagined a phone that didn't treat the internet as a second-class citizen.

And that's how I feel right now about an iWatch. I'm politely attentive and willing to be convinced, even as I see-saw on the long-term pros and cons of such a product. But convincing 2007-era smartphone users to forego a physical keyboard for a virtual one may have been easier than convincing watch wearers to buy a smart watch. While the iPhone may have transformed smartphones from pocket communicator to fashion accessory for some, Marks doesn't think the current audience for time pieces would want to replace theirs with a one-for-all solution.

"This doesn't apply to most nerds, but watches aren't just utilitarian machines designed to tell time. They're personal statements, and one watch does not fit every outfit. An Apple watch -- hell, any smart watch -- isn't going to fit every style and occasion, which makes it a less appealing idea."

Apple isn't a company that throws a dozen products at the market in hopes that one catches on; It's more deliberate. When it enters a market, it always attacks from a perspective no one considered, an angle that seems obvious only in retrospect. And that's the problem with the current iWatch fad. The Geek in me wants to believe, but I haven't read about a convincing angle -- or just the right problem solved -- that would lead Apple to release such a device. And I'm not the only one.

Hype or hope?

"Would something like this really benefit people as a whole?" said Marks. "Or are the pundits and analysts just bored with their phones and they're looking for the next big thing? I'm leaning towards the latter, and a watch isn't going to be the next big thing."

"Personally, I don't believe the mass market is ready for a product like this," said Bajarin. "It is still in the very early part of the adoption curve. ...I think the most important thing is for [Apple] to focus ... driving iPhone and iPad penetration deeper world wide."

I don't know if the iWatch is real; there's more than enough evidence in Apple's filings to suggest that Apple is working on something -- this is not news; it and other companies are always working on projects, most of which never make it to the store shelves. But there's not enough public information to distinguish between sci-fi and real world.

The way I figure it, if there is a single company that can pull off a game-changing product of this type, and usher in a new wave of wearable computing, it's Apple. Sure, there's Google Glass, which comes with its own set of implementation baggage. It's innovative and cool in a geeky kind of way, but not in a real-world kind of way.

The issue remains: What's the compelling rationale for an iWatch? What real-world problems have Apple engineers cracked with this device? Apple's track record for creative attacks on existing or new market segments speaks for itself. If something like an iWatch is released, it will no doubt be a great addition to the existing product line and there will be a compelling reason to own one. Otherwise, the iWatch won't make it past the prototype stage.

But, I may have to see it to believe it.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

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