iWatches and Bracelets and Shades, Oh My
Jan 3, 2013 5:00 AM PT
There have been a few new Apple rumors floating around the last few days, starting with one that claimed Apple was working on an "iWatch" and graduating to wearable computers. Piper Jaffray Apple-watching analyst Gene Munster even went so far as to point out in a research note for his investor clients that, over the course of several years, wearable computing devices could provide some next-generation revenue to the iPhone and iPad business.
I must admit, at first glance, I found the idea of an iWatch tantalizing. An iWatch could extend the functionality of your iPhone to your wrist to see messages, alerts, make and take calls -- sounds indubitably cool, right? Or if not cool, then damn handy. Half the time when I'm running around doing something and a call or text comes in when the volume is down, I don't even feel the vibration -- but a bit of a vibration in my wrist? At a glance I could see if a message or notification was important enough to respond to.
This iWatch Idea Isn't Exactly New
Of course, the previous generation of the iPod nano was a cute little square with a big screen, which tech lovers started turning into wristwatches by creating watch bands that would hold the iPod nano watch. Apple even sold some of the resulting bands produced by third-party manufacturers in its own stores. Then Apple went and completely renanoed the iPod nano into a larger unit. Seemed odd then, despite offering more screen and app potential, but maybe the renanoing is making room for something in the future.
Still, the most promising smartphone-connecting watches are coming from manufacturers beyond Apple: One of the highest profile new-generation watches, the Pebble, snagged more than US$10 million in funding from nearly 69,000 backers on Kickstarter. The Pebble is a customizable e-paper watch for iPhone and Android. The so-called "smartwatch" was supposed to ship back in September, but it's not yet clear when 69,000 or so will hit the streets.
Meanwhile, a company called "MetaWatch" has started selling its own Bluetooth-based watches for Android and iPhone.
The MetaWatch isn't exactly ugly, nor is it as refined as the not yet mass-produced Pebble, and therein lies a problem for Apple: Looks. A watch is a lot more than just a computing device. It's a fashion statement. A signifier of a person's identity. Sure, plenty of people are OK wearing a plastic Timex chosen from a drugstore counter by the cash register, but when most people consider spending a couple of hundred bucks on a watch, it better serve up more than just the time. It has to be cool enough to match the person's general style of dress, general lifestyle, or fit a fashion purpose.
At the same time, the cell phone and smartphone has been killing off watches all around the world -- why bother with a wristwatch when your smartphone tells you the time and has easy-to-set alarms? Never mind that your phone can automatically adjust to daylight-saving time and switch time zones for you. I find it ironic that the bane of the watch may become a tool to help resurrect them.
Fear an Apple iWatch
As much as I like the idea of seeing messages on my wrist, of being able to have a speakerphone conversation using an iWatch, of being able to control my Apple TV with an iWatch -- I'm just not sold on the idea that Apple's master of design, Jony Ive, can create a watch I'd want to wear for a few years. Blasphemy! you say?
Let me explain. While I'm sure that Ive can create a fantastic design and that Apple could create some useful feature extensions to such a device, I start balking at the idea of walking around with millions of other people wearing the same watch. A psychological problem or challenge? You bet.
If an iWatch and wearable computing components like earrings or sunglasses represent a possible future extensions of the iPhone, Apple is going to have to seriously consider changing its product delivery model. Instead of one bracelet to rule them all and fit everyone's wrists, Apple is going to need to be willing to produce a lot of different options -- and a pallet of pretty iPod-like colors won't cut it.
Why? Apple isn't known for giving consumers choices. And customizability? Ha! It's one thing to put an iPhone that millions of others have in your pocket or throw a custom case on it, and it's another thing to walk around seeing everyone else wearing the same Apple watch. It's one thing to see iconic white headphones walking down the street and another to have zero options to change them out for something different.
Apple also has a tendency to shove third-party manufacturers aside in favor of its own solutions. So if Apple actually created an iWatch, I wouldn't be surprised if Apple kept some proprietary smartwatch love to itself so that competitors would not be able to compete with the same level of functionality.
Of course, if Android takes over the world before an iWatch is produced, it won't matter -- Apple will go back to being a cool minority -- but I doubt it. Either way, as I see it, there's only one way forward for Apple when it comes to wearable iDevices: customizability.
Think Really Different
If Apple would create multiple kinds of watches -- or allow multiple kinds of bands -- sharing the same wristwatch as millions of other people wouldn't be quite so sheep-like. Better yet would be to allow a truly customizable experience through the software itself, which again, flies in the face of Apple's general playbook. Have you noticed how customizable your iPhone experience is? Not very -- and iOS has been out for years! Apple has been pretty rigid, really.
So right now, how might an iWatch rollout look? We'd start with getting a black or white option. Then one year later, the same watch would get a new coat of paint with half a dozen color options. Oh, and there'd be some cool TV ads showing them off dancing and hopping around.
Apple will sell millions to the true fanboys and wannabe cyborgs, sure, but if this represents the iPhone-to-wearable-computing-device trend, it could spark Apple resistance. Can you imagine Apple dominating the world of smartwatches like it dominated the MP3 world with the iPod? Eh. If your friends, spouse, and kids all wear the same iWatch, that could turn on Apple in an instant: Instead of cool, an iWatch could easily become uncool. It could signify a big, glaring reason to avoid Apple. A pocketable device like an iPhone simply doesn't carry this same risk. But a watch? Careful Apple, careful.
As long as Apple doesn't try to control the "iWatch" ecosystem with its own limited choice option, the wearable iDevice future for Apple enthusiasts might remain promising and exciting. In fact, if Apple doesn't create an iWatch, that will be fine, too. Apple just has to loosen the claws of control to let innovators tap into the power of iOS and their iPhones -- which is the future "wearable" Apple I'm hoping for.