Apple and iWatch: The next frontier?

Wearable computers could be the next big thing, and few companies could do more than Apple -- and its army of developers -- to make a smartwatch a must-have accessory.

By MSN Money Partner Feb 12, 2013 4:24PM

File photo of people at the Apple store in Saint-Herblain, western France (© JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images)By Theresa Poletti, MarketWatch  

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Wearable computers, such as a wristwatch that makes phone calls, have for many years been the stuff of comic books, science-fiction novels and spy movies.

But recent reports that Apple (AAPL) is developing a so-called "smartwatch" mean that the company could turn wearable computers into computing's next frontier and singlehandedly revive watch-wearing among younger generations.

"We see the body as the next frontier for personal computing," said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester Research. "It would be strange for Apple to be absent from that, they absolutely have something to contribute to that."

Rumors that Apple is possibly working on such a device have been around for some time, based on patents it has filed and other clues. In early January, analyst Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray wrote a note to clients, saying that while he was unsure of the timing, he believed Apple "will eventually introduce some type of wearable computing product."

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Indeed, Apple would not be the first company to create such a device. For example, Sony (SNE) already makes a $130 SmartWatch that works with Android-based smartphones and displays texts, emails and social media updates, along with letting you know who is calling you.

But Apple has the marketing heft and technological chops to make such a device popular -- and fashionable -- in the mainstream.

And investors, who have seen Apple's stock plummet over the last few months over worries that its hyper-growth phase is slowing, may jump on some fresh product buzz.

Guaranteed to look cool

"Apple, like every other consumer electronics company out there, is trying to figure out the next big thing," said Paul Saffo, head of foresight at Discern Analytics. "The next big thing may be a bunch of little things. What do you do after you have a laptop, a smartphone  and a tablet? You accessorize."

A smartwatch would likely at first just connect to an iPhone for phone calls, electronic payments and receiving messages on the screen. One aspect of what Apple is reportedly working on seems to involve its partner Corning (GLW) with its new curved glass, called Willow Glass.

This invention would make the iWatch more novel, enabling it to have a larger screen that could curve over the wrist.

"It is guaranteed to look cool," Saffo said." It most probably will do something useful. It will be an open invitation for developers to figure out what it's good for."

One early use of a smartwatch could be as a replacement for a Bluetooth headset, which will have everyone walking around "looking like a secret service agent," Saffo added. Or like Dick Tracy, the famous police detective who started talking into a two-way wrist radio to his colleagues on the force in the late 1940s.

Forrester Research wrote in a report last month that in 2012, many companies introduced wearable devices for health and fitness, which track activity with sensor chips, such as the Nike+ Fuelband. But Forrester noted that while these devices are promising, they fall short in areas such as data quality and lack a coaching feature to take advantage of all the data that has been gathered by the device.

'Becoming like tagged bears'

In addition, the downside of a device that is worn all the time on your body is that users could potentially be tracked even more easily than they are with smartphones.

"We're all becoming like tagged bears," said Saffo, adding that whether or not smartwatches track more than smartphones will depend on what electronics they contain, such as GPS chips.

But it is unlikely that more tracking will dissuade consumers, if they find an iWatch fast and easy to use to pay for things, or if it offers other conveniences.

"Americans complain about privacy, but offer them the cheapest trinket, or a free cup of coffee and they will spill the most intimate details of their lives," he said.

How far out this potential iWatch could be is the real question now for investors. As Rotman Epps pointed out, reports of Apple TV last year have yet to turn into a solid product yet.

"The speculation on timing was a little premature," she said. "I don't know that Apple is going to do this."

More from MarketWatch:

Feb 13, 2013 9:25PM

That is just funny to me that they are utilizing the term "watch" at all.  I think in any way linking a new wrist-based form factor to the term "watch" isn't good marketing.  Wris-Top is much better.


Think Wonder Woman's metal wristbands, but bent glass in a rectangular shape around your wrist.  If lightweight and form fitting so you don't notice it unless you are interacting with it and it will sell.    


I DO believe that this will be commonplace in the future (and I've assumed..maybe wrongfully so...that all of the big companies in this smart(insert device here) space would be working on this. 


Taking your phone out and putting it away is easy, but if you could avoid having to do that all the time it would be great. 


TYPING is the issue with a wristbased device so Apple's first move should be to use some of their $100 billion+ in the bank and buy Nuance.  Their Dragon software is the backbone for many voice based solutions (including Siri I believe, so Apple already has the relationship).  This would be good as voice controlled SEAMLESS/EASY texting, web surfing, phone calling, etc... would make this a viable and game changing tech right out of the gate if done correctly. 


Screensavers and background pics on it will be part of your persona like your clothes, jewelry, haircut, etc...   Different pictures or moving patterns to display your mood on any given moment in time.  


One flaw is texting/emailing while in an environment that needs silence.  Hard to get my mind around how they can dial that in without taking it off to type or using another device (e.g. phone in your pocket in these cases which defeats the purpose to some extent).


Similar to how the Microsoft Surface PRO (awesome by the way...MSFT needs to market it better to gamers.  Nobody is realizing that you can play WoW, Portal 2, Starcraft 2, Diablo III, etc.. on it yet!  NO IPad can do anything like that.  That is a MASSIVE advantage.  A gaming tablet that also you use for work.  Missing a huge opp if you ask me, but I digress) works with insanely easy click of the keyboard/cover to its home on the Surface.  This new device would need a FLEXIBLE back that could be popped off and lock itself straight to be able to type with two hands and then flip it around your wrist where it automatically clicks together with no hassle back to its home is probably the way it will have to work.  (patent trolls are running to file...)


Cliff Notes:   This form factor is the future due to ease of access to the info (your wrist is VERY accessible to your eyes).  Using the term "watch" is silly though.  Issues with typing unless you incorporate a quick release.  Voice integration is CRITICAL.   Apple is stupid if they don't buy Nuance and lock out Microsoft and others from doing it (I live in Seattle and will always back Microsoft for what they've done for the world, so I would rather THEY buy Nuance and Nuance's other software solutions are sooooo synergistic with Microsoft's Office and other business solution fyi.) Microsoft Surface PRO could be marketed better as the ONLY gaming tablet made for work too. 


My two cents....

Feb 13, 2013 9:08AM
Why would I need this? Do yourself a favor... hire middle aged people and outfit them with electric cattle prods. Let them loose in your Think Tank. Everytime some immature comic book reader has a STUPID idea... ZAP them. Here... let me help Apple be creative... invent replacement vision for all of the permanent eye damage done by staring into your radioactive screens and forced focus on little buttons. Invent a "black box" for modes of transportation that disable starters when they sense high alcohol breath, sound alarms when drivers are distracted by Apple products, automatically issue a ticket to speeders and slowers and report you to authorities when your primary focus isn't on driving. How about a home energy management system that coordinates your solar panels, wind turbine and passive supplements while selling your excess back to the grid. GET A CLUE, Apple... we can't afford any more gimmicky toys. It's about jobs- the kind of jobs useless technology robs from us. Focus on technology that does what we can't, not what compromises our existences. Do some good, or go out of business.
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