Apple Devices iOS News, — February 8, 2013 18:57 — 5 Comments
Former employee says product is probably under development, after analysts forecast $1.5bn market in ‘wearable computing’
Apple’s next big thing will be a "smart watch" which will "fill a gaping hole in the Apple ecosystem" – at least according to one of the company’s earliest employees, interface expert Bruce Tognazzini.
Dubbing the product the "iWatch", Tognazzini says that the product – which he thinks would link to an iPhone via Bluetooth – is probably already being worked on inside Apple.
With the company being sued by Greenlight Capital for hoarding its cash, and with no radically new product since the iPad in January 2010, some are looking to Apple to come up with a blockbuster product that will kindle a new source of revenue as its iPod line – which kicked off its rise in 2001 – begins to fade.
And the market for such "wearable computing" is poised to take off, according to Juniper Research, which forecast last November that it could be worth .5bn next year as consumers, fitness fanatics, healthcare and the military begin to adopt it. But if Apple enters it, the market could explode.
Tognazzini, who helped develop the graphical interface used on the first Macintosh, admits his insights into it do not come from insider information – but points out he has "a solid understanding of Apple, its products, the problem and the opportunity".
He predicts that it will use wireless charging, have a curved screen – following an Apple patent for the system – and be controlled by the voice-driven assistant Siri. And its essential feature – the "killer app" – will be that it will unlock the screen on the phone when it is brought close, and be able to make the phone ring and light up when the owner is trying to find it.
"Apple can create a smartwatch with revolutionary functionality that is drop-dead gorgeous. Is there any doubt they will do so?" he asks.
Launching such a product would pitch Apple into the market for wearable computing and up against Google, which is planning to introduce its Google Glass system – a pair of clear spectacles with a small screen and camera mounted at the top of the right lens – within months.
But it would also be another setback for Microsoft, which – as with tablets – was one of the first companies into the "wearable" market, but has ceded it to rivals. Bill Gates showed off one of the first "smart watches" with the Spot watch in 2004, with a subscription-based model to show data updates. But few people bought them, and Microsoft stopped selling it in 2008, and the services to the watches were turned off in January 2012.
Since then the huge focus on smartphones has meant that "wearable" devices have been mostly ignored. But the announcement by Google of its Glass project in May 2012, and the independent Pebble project – which attracted millions of dollars through the KickStarter funding system from individuals in mid-2012, and has now begun shipping to users – points to growing excitement about the potential market.
Apple declined to comment on whether it is working on a smart watch.
Benedict Evans, tech and telecoms analyst for Enders Analysis, said he was sceptical about the idea. "It seems like exactly the sort of dilution of focus that Apple have always tried to avoid. It would also be expensive – 0 or more, surely – when the main strategic imperative is to expand price points and distribution." He wonder if "it make more sense to expose more capabilities through Bluetooth and expand the third-party hardware accessory market?"
But Apple may see a potential replacement for its dwindling iPod business. To replace that, the iWatch would have to generate more than a billion dollars per quarter on average. In the three months over Christmas, Apple sold 12.6m iPods, generating .14bn, a fall of 18% in volume, at an average price of 9.
But as a controller accessory to an iPhone, an iWatch would be able to attract buyers who already have iPhones and iPads – who number more than 300m, according to Apple’s own data. That could drive a huge spurt of sales to early adopters. Tognazzini suggests that an iWatch would handle music – as the Pebble already does. To generate a billion dollars in revenue would require selling 10m at 0 each in a quarter – or fewer, if the device had a higher price tag.
Tognazzini forecasts that the iWatch will use wireless charging – which would work even if the watch was still on your wrist, and several feet from the charger. "Apple holds such a patent," Tognazzini notes. "[Remote charging] is not efficient, but if the watch doesn’t require all that much power to begin with and will shut down the charger when it is full… [it] will not cost much money". He suggests that AAA or similar batteries are too bulky and expensive to do the job: "You would have to spend to on AAA cells to equal a penny’s worth of the power you get out of the wall."
He also points to a patent for a low-cost method for making curved glass for screens – another requirement for a watch.
He predicts too that it won’t necessarily require any touch functionality – and instead will use Apple’s voice-drive organiser Siri, connected to the owner’s iPhone, to set timers, answer queries, and handle other tasks.
The "killer app" for an iWatch, he suggests, would be to deal with the challenge of passcodes on phones (used to lock them): "as long as my iWatch is in range, let me in! That, to me, would be the single most compelling feature a smartwatch could offer: if the watch did nothing but release me from having to enter my passcode/password 10 to 20 times a day, I would buy it. I would buy it even if it didn’t tell the right time!"
A second killer app would be to find your iPhone – so that making a request (such as "find my phone") would lead to the phone lighting up or ringing. It could also be used for tethering: "By the time you realise you have left your top-secret prototype iPhone sitting on the bar, Gizmodo will have probably already published an article on it. However, with the iWatch on your wrist, as soon as you move out of range, it will tell you that you’ve forgotten your phone, then help you locate it, as needed."
Tognazzini, who helped refine and build some of the earliest interfaces for the Mac OS interface, including elements that are used everywhere – such as cut and paste (and the choice of keyboard shortcuts), has been working as an independent expert offering analysis on user interfaces for more than a decade, working with the Nielsen/Norman Group in the US.
He suggests a huge range of potential for an iWatch’s other "killer apps": it could be used to answer (or put off) incoming calls, for sensors, and incorporate Near Field Communications (NFC) for payment systems – the latter being an element that a number of industry analysts were disappointed not to see in the iPhone 5 when it was launched in September.
If Tognazzini is correct about the project, it would catapult Apple into competition with Google, which is developing its Glass project, and smaller companies such as Pebble, which has begun shipping its eponymous smart watch to thousands of people who supported it on Kickstarter around the world.
Tognazzini notes that existing smartwatches are "big and clunky" – they need charging, can’t be read at night without extra lighting, and have functions that are often surplus to user needs.
He points though to recent examples, including the Cookoo which runs for a year between charges, and the Pebble, which is said to last a week between charges – "longer than smart watches used to go, but hardly compares to what people expect in a modern watch".
He even sees potential for people to help correct Apple’s maps through crowdsourcing: "Using pressure data from millions of watches, Apple could build a precision altitude map of the world. This map would indicate true altitudes everywhere that iWatch wearers travel. The granularity would be several orders of magnitude greater than ever before attempted for a wide-area map at a cost several orders of magnitude less than Flyover."
The wearables market is thought to be poised for a takeoff, with Google, Apple and Microsoft all having filed large numbers of patents which relate to devices that can be worn on the head or wrist and provide data about the environment, as well as providing extra information for the user.
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