Forget the iPhone: It's all about iWatch now

Tuesday's Apple announcement will usher in a new era, just like the Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad rollouts did.

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Every time Apple announces a new iPhone, the device has a few features and surprises that put the company's most profitable product ahead of the competition, at least for a few months. That's probably going to happen again on Tuesday.

The iPhone 6 will probably be extremely thin, fast and light. It may have a nearly unscratchable sapphire screen. It will likely come in two sizes.

Nice. But 10 years from now, nobody will remember the announcement of the iPhone 6.

They will, however, remember the launch of the Apple iWatch.

Apple's 5th revolution

It's reasonable to temper expectations. Of course it's possible that Apple's iWatch will be a dog. Heck, the company might not even announce it. And even if it does, the iWatch almost certainly won't ship until next year.

But it's even more reasonable to expect that the iWatch will launch another revolution.

Apple's world-changing revolutions include the 1984 Macintosh, the 2001 iPod, the 2007 iPhone and the 2010 iPad.

The iWatch should be most comparable to the Mac and the iPhone, Apple's two most stunning revolutions. Here are some of the attributes of earlier Apple revolutions that the debut of the iWatch is likely to share.

1. They surprised us

On Jan. 24, 1984, Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. That's where Apple is holding its event on Tuesday -- and where it is expected to unveil the iWatch. (Both Apple co-founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, attended De Anza College.)

The year Jobs announced the Macintosh, everyone knew Apple would unveil a computer. But nobody knew what it would look like or how it would work. Jobs' demo was filled with shock and awe because people didn't expect it.

The same was true for the iPhone. Everyone expected a phone, but hardly anyone knew the basics of what it would look like or how it would work.

Just like those iconic products, the iWatch is unknown and the details may surprise us.

The device has been rumored for years. Although we know a lot about what the iPhone 6 looks like and how it will work, we have no idea what the iWatch will look like. We don't even know the basics. Will it be round, square or rectangular? Will the wristband contain a battery? Will there be a large one and a small one? Nobody has any idea.

It's been seven years since Apple has surprised us with a major new platform.

2. They forced the industry to do things Apple's way

After Apple announced the Macintosh, no significant new operating system launched without a graphical user interface and mouse-centric operation. Likewise, before the iPhone, more than 99% of major smartphones had physical keyboards. A year after the iPhone launched, hardly any phones had keyboards.

The same is true of the iPad. Microsoft and other companies had been trying to make tablets work for two decades. Apple's version killed prior attempts and refocused the entire industry on doing it Apple's way, because in the end that was the model that consumers really wanted.

The Mac, the iPhone and the iPad weren't the first of their kind in their categories. But the way Apple designed, built and marketed those products influenced the industry.

I have the feeling it's going to be the same with the iWatch.

Eddy Cue is Apple's senior vice president of Internet software and services, and he said in May that new Apple products coming this year are the best he's seen in 25 years.

Jony Ive is Apple's senior vice president of design. He was quoted by another Apple designer this week as saying that Switzerland is in trouble because of the iWatch. That implies that he believes the iWatch is so revolutionary that it will seriously affect traditional wristwatch sales.

These comments give me some confidence that the people most familiar with Apple's iWatch believe it to be completely different from and significantly superior to other smartwatches on the market.

3. They pushed geek products into the mainstream

Smartwatches today are on the geek fringe, by which I mean hardly anyone outside the tech enthusiast world has any interest in them, and even among tech enthusiasts, only a small minority of people would be willing to buy them.

I believe Apple is the only company with the design vision, technology (not just sapphire) and devoted fan base to bring smartwatches into the mainstream.

That's exactly what Apple did with all of its revolutions -- the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

It's interesting to contrast Apple and Samsung (the only other company in the world making significant profits on smartphones) in this regard.

Samsung's fatal corporate cultural flaw is that the company pours enormous resources into products that are dead-ends because they appeal only to a subset of a subset of the market. That problem seems to be getting worse.

The company this week announced four products: The Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy Note Edge smartphones, the Gear S smartwatch and the Gear VR virtual reality headset.

The Note 4 will become the company's signature phablet. The Note Edge has a somewhat gimmicky display with a curved right-hand edge where users can access a special software interface, complete with a dedicated SDK.

The smartphones are very good. I certainly want one, and maybe you do, too. But neither device is aimed at mainstream users. Both include a stylus, for example, but most smartphone users don't want a removable pen. The Note Edge's unique feature will ultimately be perceived in the market as an obscure gimmick, and I'm predicting developers won't line up to build apps for it.

Still, the phones will sell well enough, but the watch and VR announcements are aimed at extremely tiny markets.

Samsung's Gear S smartwatch is beyond huge. When I saw the Samsung announcement, everyone in the room burst out laughing at how absurdly big the watch is. The device works as a phone; it's capable of handling calls without a tethered smartphone and icons and the whole works. To understand the market size for this ridiculous device, eliminate the 90% of people who would never wear such a large watch. Then subtract the people who don't want a smartwatch. Then eliminate the people who carry a smartphone anyway and have no need for a stand-alone smartwatch smartphone. Then eliminate the majority who cannot or would not pay whatever the price will be.

The Gear VR system is even worse. Like the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles (Oculus worked with Samsung on the software for the Gear VR), the device lets you see 3D, 360-degree scenes that respond to head movement to create the illusion that you're looking around in a virtual space. The Gear VR will be cheaper than Oculus Rift because it uses the Galaxy Note 4 as its brain and screen. But let's do another process of elimination: Eliminate every person on Earth who doesn't have a Galaxy Note 4. Then eliminate the majority who don't want a virtual reality headset. Then eliminate the people who will prefer the full Oculus Rift experience. Then eliminate the people who don't want to pay for it. Then eliminate the people who get motion sick with virtual reality. What you're left with is a few thousand people who will buy the thing.

Here's one reason why Apple pushes new products into the mainstream and companies like Samsung never do: Apple never makes computers (including phones and tablets) for niches or tiny subsets of the market.

Apple's iWatch will likely have two market limitations. It will probably be expensive, eliminating all consumers without sufficient disposable income. And it will probably work only with the iPhone. But the latter is still a large market -- virtually 100% of the iOS market.

That doesn't mean some Apple products don't fail. They do. But Apple won't come out with a smartwatch that's potentially for just 5% of the market. It wouldn't, for example, make a smartwatch that's only for men with large wrists.

4. They changed human behavior on a massive scale

The most important technology revolutions change human behavior. Of course, Apple isn't the only company that changes the world like this. Google did it with Search and Maps. MySpace, Facebook and Twitter did it with social networking. I'm not sure who transformed our relationship to photography and video. Smartphone camera photos, amateur YouTube videos and, of course, selfies made digital photography a banal, ubiquitous reflex.

Smartphones also changed behavior around wristwatches. Namely, they nearly killed them. Because just about everybody has a phone, and phones tell the time just fine, people rarely wear wristwatches as anything more than fashion accessories these days.

I believe Apple and the iWatch will bring back the wristwatch.

Why no one will remember the iPhone 6 announcement

As I said earlier, I'm convinced that no one will remember this Tuesday's event as the iPhone 6 announcement. The fact is that people only remember the announcements of the first models of new products -- the first Mac, the first iPod, the first iPhone and the first iPad.

So while the press and the pundits are referring to Apple's Tuesday event as "the iPhone announcement," they will refer to it in the future as "the iWatch announcement."

Two more things

Today, people who think about the iWatch are focusing on the obvious. Will it look cool? Will it have curved-glass sapphire? Will it give me my iPhone notifications? Will it come with nice watch faces? Will it have Siri?

The easy prediction is that the answer to all of those questions will be "yes."

My more interesting prediction is that nobody will be all that excited about these attributes after they start using the watch.

As always, the most important attribute about any consumer electronics device, including the iWatch, is how it changes human behavior or, more accurately, how it mainstreams niche behavior. I believe the iWatch will do this in two ways.

1. It will mainstream the use of a wristwatch as a credit card. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Apple's iWatch will support near field communication (NFC) technology. That means the watch itself will be useful as a credit card, an airline ticket and an entry badge. The iPhone 6 is also expected to support NFC, so it's possible that these devices will be able to sync or authenticate using that technology. These features may not be available immediately. But remember that the iPhone didn't even have an app store until long after it shipped.

2. It will mainstream the 'quantified self' movement. Right now, quantified self (the harvesting of body data and its application for monitoring health and fitness) is a niche behavior. Apple's iWatch will probably be packed with biometric sensors, and developers will probably create thousands of apps for monitoring health conditions like heart disease, obesity and diabetes, as well as progress toward fitness goals.

For all of those reasons, I believe Tuesday's announcement will usher in Apple's fifth revolution. The iPhone 6 will probably be nice. But it will merely be the latest iteration of a revolution that happened seven years ago. The iWatch revolution, however, starts Tuesday.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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