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Unlike other Apple rumors, such as the much anticipated and still unrealized Apple TV, few doubts remain that Apple is developing an iOS-based wristwatch.
In the past few days, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have both reported that Apple is exploring a computerized timepiece. And on Wednesday, Bloomberg weighed in to say that Apple "has a team of about 100 product designers working on a wristwatch-like device."
The timing appears to fit the pattern Apple followed when it introduced the iPod: The company has waited for a market to take shape and plans enter the fray with a product that's better designed and more useful, thanks to the strength of its underlying software platform, the inevitable contributions of third-party developers and an emerging cloud storage and e-commerce connection.
There's no doubt Apple could make an interesting iWatch. But what's less clear is whether the company can make a timepiece that's revolutionary. The iPhone matters because it brought mobile touch screens to the masses, put Internet-connected computers in everyone's pocket and revealed the popular appeal of a curated platform.
The iPod matters because it made the legitimate digital music market more convenient than downloading songs without paying artists or music sellers, and because it connected music management to personal computing.
The iPad matters because no other company had been able to make tablets work well, despite years of trying, and because it made computing-related activities much easier in environments where people aren't sitting at desks.
Apple surely hopes the iWatch will matter as much, but it's hard to see how that will happen. Combining a phone with a touch-screen computer changed the industry. Combining a watch with a touch-screen computer seems like more of the same. And indeed, as Bloomberg's report ominously notes, Apple's investors want more of the same. They're concerned that without another revolutionary device, Apple will not be able to sustain its high profit margins in the face of competition from Google, Samsung, and others.
But revolutionary products are not simply something that can be produced on-demand, as if one were producing a follow-up season of the hit show "iPhone." The tech industry worships its innovators, but even icons like Steve Jobs didn't simply reimagine entire industries at will. For every revolution, there are several failed uprisings, like Apple's Ping or Google's Wave. Revolutions depend on luck and timing as well as a determination to innovate in the face of naysaying.
Can Apple make the "wearable" aspect of computing matter in a way that can't be matched by strapping an iPhone or iPod nano to one's wrist? Is time-telling a function that can be enhanced with apps on a tiny screen or is the watch aspect of the iWatch irrelevant to the potential of having a subset of iPhone functions crammed into a tiny screen? Perhaps it's all a scheme to limit Google's power -- you're not going to be doing a lot of text-based searches on a device with a tiny screen.
Pictured above is how designer San Francisco-based designer Yrving Torrealba imagined an Apple watch. Time will tell whether Apple can do better. Dig into our slideshow to see iWatch's smartwatch rivals, past and present.
Science fiction writer William Gibson once observed, "The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed." That's true in part for the iWatch. Not only are there many smart, enhanced, and otherwise computerized watches to be had, but design company Hex offers a wristband to bind a 6th generation iPod nano to one's arm.
When you set out to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter to make a customizable, computerized watch and you end up with commitments for more than $10 million, people in the tech industry take notice. You can be sure that Apple's designers have been paying close attention to the Pebble.
There's no denying that the Sony SmartWatch, launched last year, has some visual appeal. But the tech community isn't impressed by whether products are fashionable. They want products that work. Gizmodo slammed the device, calling it "possibly the worst thing Sony has ever made." Not everyone is so critical: The Verge gave it a 5.8 out of 10 score. In any event, there's clearly room for Apple to make improvements.
The Timex Data Link is one of the earliest examples of smart watches, dating back to 1994. Timex and Microsoft worked together to launch a watch that translated the data from bar codes displayed on Windows computer screens to the watch's memory. It was wireless, but without radio signals. The version seen here, the Datalink USB Dress edition, dates back to 2003. Those squares on the screen? No, they're not artifacts from a damaged LCD screen. They're part of a game called Invasion. Be thankful that computer graphics have improved since then.
Last year, Wimm Labs got the attention of many tech websites with its Wimm One smartwatch and SDK. Then over the summer, it closed shop. A note on its website reads, "During the summer of 2012, WIMM Labs entered into an exclusive, confidential relationship for our technology and ceased sales of the Developer Preview Kit." That agreement could very well be with Apple, given that at least three former Wimm employees are now working at Apple. And one of them, Zach R., has a LinkedIn profile that reads, "OS Wireless Software Engineer (Prototypes) at Apple." iWatch, anyone?
i'm Watch, not to be confused with the presumed Apple iWatch, bills itself as, "The world’s first real smartwatch." If Apple decides it want to use "iWatch" as a trademark (rather than, say, the iBracelet), the creators of i'm Watch may give some real thought to the perils baiting the attorneys tasked with guarding Apple's intellectual property.
Another recent entry into the smartwatch arena is Metawatch, which also began as a Kickstarter project. Like the now defunct Wimm One, Metawatch is trying to appeal to developers in the hope that third-party apps can make a wrist-mounted computer into a product of consequence.
The way Motorola (now under Google management) positions its ACTV device is telling: It's not a "watch" but a "Fitness Tracker and Music Player." Motorola even markets the wristband as a separate item. Of course the ACTV can tell time too, but timekeeping is a commodity service. Therein lies Apple's challenge: Figuring out a way to make timekeeping integral to the iWatch's functioning. Otherwise, the iWatch will be a small iPhone in an alternative form factor, no doubt an appealing device to some, but hardly the stuff of revolution.
Garmin also makes a touchscreen watch, the Forerunner 610. But sensor-laden accessories still don't have broad appeal beyond obsessive athletes and the gadget-obsessed. As Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps put it in a recent report, "it’s hard for product strategists to quantify the value of the data that sensors capture; and the obstacles to seamless delivery of intelligent experiences are many."
What's it really worth to know how many steps one has taken in a day or the GPS coordinates of one's daily travels? For most people, the value of the data is less than the trouble of managing yet another device that has to be synced and charged and tended. In some cases, the data may not be worth anything: As Epps recounts in her report, "Nike+ FuelBand users have noted that they get more 'fuel' points for arm-intensive (but not fitness-inducing) activities such as eating pizza than they do for walking up a flight of stairs." Nike ought to heed its own slogan, "Just Do It," because casual exercise doesn't require data.
So where does that leave Apple? Watching the watchmakers, looking for an opening to change the world.
Thank you for viewing our Apple iWatch slideshow. If you'd like to learn more about Apple deployment, join us at the Mac & iOS Conference at Interop Las Vegas, May 6 & 7. Get more details and register here.