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Apple is reportedly experimenting with wristwatches made of curved glass, a project that could add another profitable product to the company's iOS arsenal.
Writing for the New York Times, Nick Bilton cited people familiar with Apple's tests and reported other signs of Apple's interest in wearable devices.
Apple is not the only company exploring this area, as can be seen by the departure of Richard DeVaul, one of its high-profile wearable computing hires from 2010 who left Apple to join Google in 2011. Google is expected to soon release a developer prototype of its Project Glass eyeglasses and the wearable era will face its first mass-market reality check.
Understandable as it may be that the tech industry would like to see wearable devices follow the same explosive growth trajectory as the mobile market experienced over the last six years, Apple, Google and other companies in this space have yet to demonstrate there's any mass-market value to buckling, strapping, mounting or otherwise attaching small, Internet-aware computers to one's body.
There is certainly niche-market value: The Nike + iPod sensor, the Nike Fuelband and other activity-tracking gadgets like the Jawbone UP wristband are loved by some. But these specialized gizmos will never have the broad impact of the iPhone.
The reason is simple: Having an Internet-connected computer with audio and video capabilities in your pocket turns out to be transformative. Having a strap to attach a less-capable Internet-connected computer to one's wrist is something less than that.
[ Want another opinion? Read Why Apple iOS-Driven Smartwatch Makes Sense. ]
The problem with wearable computing is that "wearable" barely matters as a modifier of "computing." Squeezing a processor into an iPod Nano form factor mostly means a less-capable computing device, and adding a wristband doesn't change that.
It may not always be so, once processor power consumption drops and energy generation through skin contact, radiant light, nano-chemistry and motion rises to the point that devices regenerate power at the rate they use it. But by then "wearable" will be far less interesting than "implanted" as far as computing goes.
"Wearable" matters more at the moment for Google's Project Glass, because the form of the device is critical to its function. "Wearable" for a timepiece is largely a matter of convenience and preference. Millions of people already have a Pocket iWatch, otherwise known as an iPhone. The wrist-mountable equivalent of the (as-yet) nonexistent iPhone Nano won't really being anything new to the table.
Watches and glasses are different from computers in that they're sold as fashion accessories and status symbols. The form matters more than the commodity function, telling time. Why else would anyone pay hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for a luxury watch?
Former Apple designer Bruce Tognazzini has penned an essay on the merits of an Apple iWatch. But I find it unconvincing. The two "killer applications" he cites, passcode management and iDevice location, are nothing of the sort. Rather than relying on the iWatch to eliminate iPhone passcode entry, the iPhone would be better off with biometric access support. And finding one's iPhone can already be done well enough through iCloud.
1. Subscription Fees
Smartphones are expensive to own and operate, particularly if you also pay cellular connectivity on a tablet, broadband Internet and cable TV. If the iWatch requires a monthly fee, it will be a lot less appealing.
2. Battery Life
Smartphones tend to devour battery power. An Apple iWatch wouldn't have to deal with the power demands of gaming apps, but it would be pressed for power to deal with constant network activity. If the iWatch has to be recharged frequently, it will be more burden than benefit. Inductive charging could help, but really you don't want to have to remove your watch to charge it.
3. Sensors Don't Matter
There's much talk about how ubiquitous sensors will bring on the Internet of Things and change the world. For some things, like road sensors, traffic and automatic cars, that's probably true. Sensors are particularly valuable when data is aggregated on a mass scale. However, sensors that provide personal analytics are overrated. Some people no doubt appreciate knowing how far they've walked and how many calories they've eaten. They could also have paid attention to how long they've been walking and what they put in their mouths. There's data all around us if we care to see it and think about it. You don't need an iWatch to make good personal decisions about exercise and diet.
4. Everything Watches Can Do, Phones Can Do Better
Experience the limited input capabilities of the iWatch today: Use your iPhone without using the virtual keyboard. That will mean a lot of interaction with Siri, Apple's voice-driven personal assistant. iWatch apps won't be able to do much with so little screen space and limited touch input. Someday, Siri may turn out to be the preferred way to interact with one's iPhone. But that's not the case today.
5. Notifications Are The New Spam
If you only receive a few notifications through your smartphone and other devices, then you probably appreciate notifications but don't really require them. After all, with only a few of them, you can check your calendar periodically and rely on memory, notes and other reminders. If you receive a lot of notifications, you've probably started to tune them out. Chances are you'd be better off with better information filtering than an iWatch that offers another channel for notifications.
6. NFC Isn't A Point of Differentiation
The iWatch has potential for near-field communications (NFC) applications, like contactless payments. But Apple doesn't add any value to NFC, at least not at this point. NFC is a standard protocol. There's no reason an Apple iWatch with NFC would be any better as a means of electronic payment than, say, a Google Nexus 4. When the iPhone debuted, it was better than any other smartphone. Specifically, its touch interface and digital commerce ecosystem were better than the competition. It seems unlikely that Apple will be able to reinvent the watch in a way that matches its reinvention of the mobile phone.
The real market for an iWatch might be overseas, in places like China and in the developing world where there's greater price sensitivity. The iWatch might be redundant for iPhone owners but it might work as an alternative to a smartphone. It could be an entry point to bring new customers into Apple's ecosystem, in the hope they'd later upgrade to other iOS devices. But given that Apple sells its iPod Nano for $149, it's not immediately clear that the company could sell the iWatch at a price point that's low enough. If Apple could do it for $49, it would be a huge hit. But the company has shown little interest in selling low-margin items.