Apple's Swatch connection hints at years of iWatch development

An accumulation of evidence suggests Apple [AAPL] has been in direct and indirect contact with watch-making companies for years, which in turn suggests it has been assembling its plans to create new breeds of connected and miniaturized device for many years.

Apple's close connections with watch industry hints at iWatch

[ABOVE: The Swatch Touch range.]

Apple's watch industry connections

In recent days we've learned:

Apple's design guru, Jony Ive, is a close friend of award-winning designer, Marc Newsom, who has won awards for his Ikepod range of watches, one of which has been seen clasped tightly around Ive's wrist.

Apple has been in a long-term relationship with Nike. Not only does Apple CEO, Tim Cook, sit on Nike's board, but Apple studied Nike's sports watches across the last decade, learning lessons concerning design process and materials science.

"They definitely drew upon watch industry techniques and manufacturing in their products since the first iPhone," said former Nike creative director, Scott Wilson.

This morning we learn that Apple has also been studying watches from Switzerland's Swatch brand.

“Swatch has had contact with Apple over many years about materials for products and so-called energy harvesting technology that would generate energy from physical movement," explained Swatch Group CEO, Nick Hayek, during that company's financial results call this morning.

What's also interesting about the Swatch connection is that the Swiss firm, like Apple, has licensed metal alloy technologies from LiquidMetal for use in its products -- clearly there's a lot of interest in that new metal alloy, which can be cast into shapes like plastic but retains the same qualities as metal.

Planned to precision

The tight fit between Apple and the precision assembly and design of the Swiss watch industry is understandable, tangible and profound.

  • Apple makes precision systems with a design and production ethic second to none. So do the Swiss.
  • Apple's devices are built to last -- the iPhone is without question the most robust smartphone you can get -- no one matches its build quality. Swiss watches offer a similarly premium experience;
  • Apple's products are deliberately designed to represent the very best systems you can get; Switzerland's connection with the luxury goods market is part of that nation's definition of itself.

Recent weeks have seen a plethora of patents, leaks and rumors suggesting Apple plans to introduce its own connected, intelligent watch, popularly dubbed, 'iWatch'.

The accumulating evidence strongly supports the position that Apple has been studying the design, materials, manufacture and process of watchmaking for near a decade.

This intense study doesn't necessarily need to be solely focused on watches, of course. Small components, precision production and assembly techniques, metallurgy and product finishing lessons from within this industry would all strongly inform Apple's development of its other mobile products.

What we (might) expect

Reading between the lines of the evidence so far, I'd speculate that -- in the event Apple does introduce an iWatch -- it will use Liquid Metal alloys and have a flexible display provided by (conceivably) LG, as Apple's deal with Sharp appears to have fallen through on news of Samsung's acquisition of a stake in the latter firm.

Assuming some of the more recent claims are correct, the device may run a handpicked selection of apps, with a new SDK likely made available to app developers. In the event apps do feature within this device, connectivity options will likely include Bluetooth and mobile data networks, using the tiny new nano-SIM card.

Moving into complete conjecture, it seems likely the iWatch will be equipped with 4-8GB of memory, a single-core A-series chip (to reduce power demand) and Lightning connector.

What we are seeing here is an evolutionary step.

Apple seems set to introduce a new device class in which it combines lessons learned from the precision design of the Swiss watch-making industry along with the latest advances in materials, and connectivity standards, such as Thunderbolt and nano-SIM.

Apple's years of extensive research within the watch industry and the relatively recent arrival to market of some of the components and materials the company seems likely to use in its purported device suggest this evolution has been years in planning and preparation.

Can you tell what the time is?

But, will it work?

I noticed numerous commenters on some of my Google Glass posts in recent days claim that they no longer wear a watch, and that they'd find it more natural to pop on a pair of Brin's blue-tinted spectacles.

This isn't borne out by statistics, which show the global watch industry shifted around a billion watches last year. This suggests Brin's boys (and girls) are likely only representative of a small body of public opinion. They are not a mass market.

The watch is a mass market, and news of Apple's intentions to wind its way into that market clearly has some incumbents spooked.

Speaking this morning, Swatch CEO, Nick Hayek, said he is sceptical that an interactive Apple watch would replace an iPhone. "Personally, I don’t believe it’s the next revolution," he said. "Replacing an iPhone with an interactive terminal on your wrist is difficult. You can’t have an immense display.”

It will be interesting to see how Apple intends using the display within its iWatch range of advanced communication timepieces. It is, after all, quite possible the device will simply be a complementary device to an iPhone -- though I consider a stand-alone product offering a range of useful features (including Siri 2.0 support and voice calls/SMS) makes a lot more sense.

This relatively low-cost Apple device seems likely to be aimed at the existing Nike/Swatch popular watch markets, which suggests a relatively low cost product manufactured to precision standards.

If you are aware of any other connections between Apple and the watchmaking industry, please let me know via the Twitter links below.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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