In search of the Apple iWatch

A mysterious hiring, a trade mark filing and a patent application are the clues in an intriguing mystery that could signal Apple's first post-Jobs gadget launch; but will the iWatch become another segment-defining brand, asks Simon Nias.

Apple’s recent application to the Japan Patent Office to trade mark the term "iWatch" has led to renewed speculation that the California-based tech giant is on the verge of its first major product launch since the iPad.

Coupled with February’s patent application for a "wearable accessory device" and the mysterious hiring of Saint Laurent chief executive Paul Deneve to work on "special projects" this week, the trade mark filing has led many to conclude that Apple is about to enter the wearable technology market.

Apple has all sorts of things in the lab but the question with all of them is: will they ship or not?

In support of this theory, Apple CEO Tim Cook has described the market as "ripe for exploration", adding that the "wrist is natural" for wearing devices - a thinly-veiled dig at rival Google Glass, which is mounted on spectacle frames.

However, analysts remain sceptical on both the timing of the launch and the potential for an iWatch product.

"I think it’s very likely Apple has a watch of some kind in its lab and probably has for some years, alongside a TV set, a $200 phone and a games console," says independent mobile analyst Benedict Evans. "Apple has all sorts of things in the lab but the question with all of them is: will they ship or not?"

What is an iWatch?

Back in February Apple filed a patent application for a "wearable device" comprised of a flexible display with a touch sensitive user interface coupled with a "slap bracelet".

While Evans points out that tech companies file patents and trade mark names for essentially any product they can think of, he speculates that a wrist-mounted Apple product would be "very unlikely" to be a standalone product, given the inherent size restrictions.

"It would likely be an accessory of some kind, analogous to Google Glass," believes Evans. "It would give you remote notifications, it might do Siri, and it would connect to your iPhone via Bluetooth, essentially acting as a remote screen."

However, Nitin Bhas, senior analyst with Juniper Research, argues that the iWatch would offer significantly more functionality. "iWatch will not be a secondary device that communicates with any iOS device and acts like a ‘dumb display’ for texts and calls," he claims. "It will do more by integrating payments, ticketing, fitness and maybe even some cutting-edge voice functionalities."

Nathan Williams, senior strategist at branding agency Wolff Olins, agrees that the iWatch will need to offer more than just a different form factor. "I can’t see a watch having very stripped down but similar uses as an iPhone or iPod as being either useful or interesting," he says. "The most interesting uses of wearable tech are currently in the personal healthcare space and I think iWatch will have to operate in this space or similar to be really useful."

Brand potential

Juniper Research has estimated the wearable technology market to be worth $800m (£500m) worldwide in 2013, rising to $1.5bn in 2014. "We have previously identified 2014 to be the watershed year for wearables in terms of roll-out and traction, but it will take some time for devices such as smart watches to become mainstream, at least 2015 or 2016," says Bhas.

I can see a watch being more socially acceptable than Google Glass; both of them solve the glanceability issue but with a watch you don’t have the problem of talking to somebody who may or may not be ignoring you.

Evans is more sceptical about both the iWatch and Google Glass. "I can see a watch being more socially acceptable than Google Glass; both of them solve the glanceability issue but with a watch you don’t have the problem of talking to somebody who may or may not be ignoring you," he says.

"But both products are fundamentally what I would call nice-to-have rather than must-have. I’m not sure what I’d be able to do with a watch that I can’t do already and I’d be very surprised if you could make a standalone device on that scale and I struggle to see an accessory as a new 100m unit a year category."

Williams agrees. "Frankly, I’d pay no more than £100 for such a device," he adds. "If it is deeply useful then I might consider paying more…but not much more. I doubt we’ll see a watch [from Apple] in the next 12 months, or the other mooted device, Apple TV, because Apple has bigger problems such as competing against Samsung in the phone space and Google in services; Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting good at services."

It is for this reason that many feel Apple is in need of a new hit. Only time will tell whether the iWatch will be the game-changing product Apple is hoping for and if the world’s most innovative company can once again catalyse a market and do for wearable tech what it did for smartphones and tablets.

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