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Why Apple needs a wearable computer as much as wearables need Apple’s touch

There are some pretty basic — but tough — requirements for creating a wearable computer with mass consumer appeal: it has to be comfortable, stand up to dirt, water and sweat, and, perhaps most importantly, it can’t make you look like a huge nerd. No one has managed to do this yet. However, as some of the biggest players in the mobile industry race to figure out how, it’s looking more probable that Apple is preparing to put its own twist on this nascent market.

By registering trademarks for iWatch all over the world and hiring an experienced fashion executive, Apple(s AAPL) appears to be preparing for the launch of its first wearable computing device. Should such a smartwatch eventually emerge from Cupertino, and if Apple has figured out a way to make a geeky product mainstream, it could have the same effect on the fledgling wearables market that the iPhone had on the smartphone world in 2007.

Will Tim Cook’s team deliver an industry-changing, category-defining product like the iPhone or will it be a repeat of the Apple Maps situation? Or, are we playing the Apple TV game again — jumping at reports that Apple might define a category ripe for disruption, only to watch quarter after quarter pass with no product?

Jawbone Up
Jawbone Up

In the run-up to the expected launch of an Apple smartwatch, there are similarities to the smartphone landscape before the iPhone. Ahead of the debut of the iPhone, Apple had made its mark in a related category a few years before — iPods — and was attempting to push into an industry that wasn’t exactly new. The iPhone entered a field crowded with BlackBerry, Palm, Nokia and Samsung smartphones. And while they sold well, they weren’t mainstream yet. These devices were still mainly purchased by business users.

Six years later it’s safe to say Apple has done pretty well in the smartphone business. The iPhone flipped the the wireless industry on its head. Apple did that by building a device using existing technologies and a modified version of OS X for mobile, and struck the right deals to deliver a smartphone experience that worked for regular people.

The iWatch (assuming that’s what it will be called) has the potential of repeating a similar formula. Wearable computing is a burgeoning category expected to be worth $1.5 billion by the end of next year. While smartwatches have been so far been built to appeal to fitness types and the early adopter crowd, there’s clear potential that such a device will find a home with a mainstream audience if done right.

Sony SmartWatch 2 trio
Sony SmartWatch 2

A device that can combine notifications, email/messages access, with location services, health-tracking, and a rich third-party ecosystem is a trick Apple has pulled off before. This time, it has to do it in a much smaller package and also make the case for why we should wear a computer instead of carry it in our pocket or purse. That’s a pretty tall order, but Apple has proven itself here in the past.

There is, of course, another scenario. The one in which Apple, feeling pressure to enter a new category it doesn’t have a lot of experience with and hurries into it partly as a way of playing defense against a key competitor.

That was partly what went wrong with Apple Maps. Apple felt the need to remove Google(s GOOG) from providing a main function of iOS software — mapping — and build its own version of the software that addressed the needs of its customers (turn-by-turn directions was a legitimate feature need that Google was keeping back from iOS users).

But despite bringing in the outside expertise it would need — Poly9, C3, Placebase, via acquisition — the reaction to the first version of the product was a disaster for Apple. Maps was likely rushed in order to build it into iOS 6 in fall 2012, and Apple overhyped the brand new product without providing the clearly necessary warning about its possible shortcomings.

This scenario, of course, occurred in the post-Steve Jobs era at Apple. While iOS 7 was reportedly the first software product designed without him, it’s possible that any wearable device Apple comes up with will be the first hardware product made in the post-Jobs era. But, really, we don’t know how long Apple may have been discussing wearable computing — the iPad was in the works for years before it debuted in 2010, for example.

Tim Cook cleaned house after the Maps debacle, so it’s quite possible Apple learned its lesson about being overeager to ship a product that’s not quite ready — and the lessons from the MobileMe disaster of 2008 certainly remain fresh in the minds of senior executives. There isn’t a smartwatch in existence yet that Apple would feel compelled to rush out and top — yet. A leak to the Wall Street Journal last week made it clear that Google is indeed working on its own Android-powered smartwatch — a development the folks in Cupertino are obviously keeping a close eye on.

The debut of the iWatch, if and when it comes, is going to be the most closely watched Apple product debut since the original iPad. Not just because it’s an Apple product, and not just because Apple’s shareholders and customers have been clamoring for something shiny and new.

But also because everyone will be eager to see how the company that Jobs left behind plans to really move forward without him.

14 Responses to “Why Apple needs a wearable computer as much as wearables need Apple’s touch”

  1. I am really excited about the possibility of owning a smart watch, but I don’t own an iPhone. If the iWatch turns out to be a companion device then it’s game over for a lot of us. Those people that didn’t rush out to buy an iPhone are surely not going to be swayed by this.

    Enough rumour Apple – either do or do not. There is no try.

  2. focher

    Every time someone asserts that Apple’s Maps was some disaster, it’s done without any evidence whatsoever … as if it’s just a commonly accepted truism. However, it didn’t seem to impact sales of the actual devices that use it. And we see clearly that it didn’t prevent pretty much every iOS user from updating their device to iOS 6.

  3. I don’t see a device like this replacing my iPhone, so the question is: what feature will it have that’s going to make me decide to carry another device on top of what I have right now?

    One of the nicest features of the iPhone is that it contains an iPod and a camera, so for me, it’s 3 devices in 1. Very handy!

    If it’s to be a companion device, the iWatch is going to have to do *something* so well that it keeps us from pulling out our phones at least a dozen times a day. But I don’t see yet what that might be.

  4. Actually, Maps turned out really well for iOS users. We went from having one moderately good map app without turn-by-turn instructions to having two competing apps with that feature. Sounds like success to me.

  5. winstuff

    Watches? Glasses? Fugetaboutit. We need a wallet replacement, an iWallet or Wall-i. Everybody carries one. Every wallet is full of personal ID we don’t want to lose; a friend carries his passport with him. Every wallet is a bursting financial and shopping depot, with cash, debit cards, credit cards, etc. As Willy Sutton said, it’s where the money is! Why is everyone so afraid to outVisa Visa? Maybe fingerprinting or eyeballprinting will encourage Apple et al.

  6. NoOne

    One of the key components for Maps was the time component. They had been moving to build their own map service for years. They clearly had a plan to remove Google Maps for quite some time, and that date was clearly for when the Google/Apple agreement came up for renegotiation. However massive data projects have a way of blowing past deadlines that contract negotiations don’t. So they made the call, were they close enough to give Google the boot? They decided they were, and went with it. The key component there being that there was an external pressure which prevented them from doing what they normally do, which is just polish until it’s done.

    There isn’t that external time component with an iWatch. They can, and from what little evidence we can glean from the outside, have kept their focus on providing a quality product, which is why it hasn’t been shoved out the door.

    The iWatch may flop. Apple can screw up just like everyone else. But the Maps situation isn’t a good example to hold up of their failures, because it’s not really analogous. I know why you did it, it’s the most recent and most public failure they’ve had, but even then… Apple Maps wasn’t much of a failure if you look at it today… It’s better than Google Maps was a year after it launched, just saying. If the iWatch fails like that… It should be a successful product a few years after it comes out, no matter what the tech press says.

  7. Kris Letain

    They didn’t have a choice with Maps, the contract was up, it had to launch with iOS 6 even if it wasn’t ready and really no matter when they launched it there was going to be bugs as they needed the user data to work out the issues, there is simply no way to build a perfect maps product behind a closed curtain, it is something that improves through iterative efforts. Google Maps wasn’t that great when it first started, nor was Map Quest before it. These improved as a result of the data they got back from people actually using them.

    It is looking more and more like the iWatch is a real product, but I do wonder what the timeline is looking like. In the past when Apple has hired outside talent to help with a product, that is usually a sign that we will see the product a couple years from now. Siri is a good example of this. So the question we need to ask ourselves is if this new SVP of Special Projects is going to be part of the iWatch, was he brought on board to help with designing the product or marketing it? If he is going to be a big part of the design process I wouldn’t expect us to see anything until 2015.

  8. Reblogged this on Pallino1021…The Blog and commented:
    Wearables and connected devices are quickly changing how we live. Freeing up time, and enabling us to effortlessly check on this-and-that is important. Tracking our health and minding our connections is also important. Apple is certain to give us some very useful options…that fit our lifestyle.

  9. Nicholas Paredes

    Google is an information/search company, and Apple is an hardware/interface company. Maps is very simply not their business, unless they decide to build the data over a decade or buy Nokia Maps to get it. Even then, I am unsure they will tend it well. Look at iCloud as well.

    Apple should do a DoCoMo as they did so well with the iPhone, and open iCloud as a platform. Why they insist on the control is beyond me. DoCoMo was a great example of building a platform so that others could extend the services. They even bought a bank to ensure that payments could be processed.

    The iWatch will provide the data to control the information interface. Sensors and haptic interaction simply hasn’t been developed to a level of excellence, and this is Apple’s opportunity. Everything from the Fitbit to Nike’s products piggyback on the iPhone rather than the cloud. A device that can act independently and allow kids to call home would sell like crazy.

    • Dionne Dullens

      Hi Nicolas, I am a student at Tilburg University (The Netherlands) and I study company blogs for my Master thesis. I saw your comment about this Apple blog and I was wondering whether you also visit company blogs from time to time. Please help me graduate by filling out my survey about company blogs: Thank you very much for your cooperation! Kind regards, Dionne Dullens