A future iWatch could test Apple’s cloud chops

It seems rather clear, based on multiple reports, that Apple (s aapl) is actively studying how to get on the wearable computing train with an iOS-based smart watch. Now that we’re pretty sure it exists, the debate turns to what it might do: it will probably run iOS, will do some health-monitoring basics, and let you accept or decline phone calls with caller ID.

But this is likely just what the earliest iteration of such a device could do. Apple may start small, but it tends to think pretty big: after all, it launched the iPhone without third-party apps while internally debating whether or not Apple should offer developers access to the phone — and that worked out pretty well. It’s not a stretch to assume Apple would want to offer access to its most important basic services — from FaceTime and iMessage to Notes, Reminders and notifications — to any wearable device, like it has to the iPhone, iPad and Mac.

And it’s at this point that iWatch could really stretch what Apple is capable of delivering as far as internet services. Few doubt that Apple will make a really beautiful piece of hardware. But a future version of an iWatch could, like MobileMe did in 2008 and like Apple Maps did last fall, further reinforce the notion that Apple is still very weak when it comes to implementing web-based services.

However, the promise of an iWatch connected to the cloud could finally push Apple to get its web-based act together.

The promise of Siri

The dream of an iWatch is to (eventually) do many of the things we rely on our mobile devices for, but on a small computer resting on our wrists: browse the web, get mapping directions, send text messages, and in the case of the iPhone, use alternate interaction and communication methods, like a video call on FaceTime or voice-controlled Siri to get tasks done.

Siri, in particular, seems especially ideal for a device that will likely have pretty small display and no hardware buttons. Initially this may be unnecessary if you’re simply using the watch for checking your heart rate or tapping to answer a call. But when an iWatch becomes more capable, voice control might be the quickest way to add something to your calendar or even send a text message. Siri’s going to have to get a lot better for that to be a selling point for an iWatch someday, of course.

In my personal experience, Siri is one of those “nice to have” features but it doesn’t play into my use of my iPhone or iPad on any kind of regular basis. This is mostly because it’s just slow. I love the idea of dictating a text message when I’m driving; the reality is that by the time Siri understands what I actually want it to do, sometimes it takes much longer than it should. This is somewhat understandable because the service is still technically in beta. (But that brings up a whole other point of why a service Apple has been actively advertising as a key iOS feature is still in beta nearly 17 months later.)

iWatch and the cloud

And then there’s the general reliability of Apple’s cloud-based services. iCloud, which is Apple’s solution for keeping users’ content accessible from different Apple devices, is no stranger to outages; there was a half-day episode just last week that took down iCloud backup, Photo Stream and Documents in the cloud for some users.

But its other internet-based services that also operate in the cloud (i.e. not iCloud) aren’t always reliable either. Siri, iMessage, FaceTime, Maps and GameCenter are all services that have gone offline at one point or another or experienced major usage issues. An iWatch could add millions of more access points for these services at the same time that Apple will presumably be growing its user base through the sale of iPhones, iPads and other devices too.

Even if the iWatch does arrive before Christmas 2013, as some outlets have reported, it doesn’t appear like there will be many of Apple’s cloud-based services included right away. So Apple has some time to get there.

But an iWatch — if and when it arrives, and if and when it is integrated with Apple’s cloud services — could either help Apple’s internet services teams shine or further tarnish their reputation. Google Glass may be dorky, but no one worries about whether or not Google will be able to deliver useful and compelling web services to its wearable computer.