As I noted in a piece I wrote towards the end of last year, there are a number of industries Apple could potentially disrupt, one of them being the watch industry. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPod nano, he said that one of his board members was working to find a way to strap it on to his wrist, so he could also use it as a watch. Shortly after the nano was released, a cottage industry of nano watchband makers started to emerge, and then multiplied in numbers.
But in last year's article, I stated that for the nano to be disruptive, it would need a Bluetooth connection to the iPhone, letting it serve as kind of a visual intermediary. It could display things like caller ID, iMessages, and news alerts, and would eliminate the need for me to take my iPhone out of my pocket unless I needed to respond.
To date, Apple has not added any of these features to the nano but even if it does, the firm will no longer be the first to take this concept and run with it. Recently, two companies unveiled watches that would work as companions to smartphones, and both show a lot of promise. One comes from Sony and the other comes from Pebble Technology, a small startup.
The Sony SmartWatch is basically like the nano except it runs Android. It uses a colour OLED and serves as a connected companion screen to Android smartphones. The device sells for £110 and is on the market now. I have been testing one out, and while it has some flaws and is difficult to use, it does connect to an Android phone as advertised.
The Pebble smartwatch is the one that is the most interesting to me, though, since it can be used with an Android or an iPhone. While its screen is not a colour OLED like Sony's, it uses e-ink, which means this product has a very long battery life and can be even thinner than Sony's.
While Sony is a major company with ample funds, Pebble Technology raised its money using Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform which is coming to the UK soon. It is not the first project to try this approach, but its pitch seems to have struck a chord, especially with the early adopters. It had hoped to raise $100,000 (£64,000) from these pledges but in just the first four days, it raised more than $3 million (£1.9 million). Backers will receive a smartwatch when the product eventually ships.
With all of this interest in the nano as a pseudo-smartwatch, and these new entries from Sony and Pebble, not to mention earlier models from Motorola and others, is it time for Apple to create its own iWatch, tied directly to the iPhone? Given this competitive pressure, you would think the answer should be yes. But if history is our guide, doing something just to counter the competition at this early stage is not Apple's style.
We have solid examples of how Apple actually looks at market opportunities and eventually responds. For instance, Apple did not invent the MP3 player, but once these devices had become established as a product with major potential, Apple brought out the iPod and today it owns 75 per cent of the music player market.
Now, consider the iPhone. Apple did not invent smartphones, but once they took off, it brought out the iPhone and today possesses a major portion of this market. Again, Apple did not introduce tablets to the world but entered later with the iPad. The company's model has been to look at the fundamentals surrounding each of these products and then apply its own genius of design, ecosystem, and marketing to any category of devices it feels that it can make better.
Today, smartwatches tied to smartphones are in the very early stages but show promise. Don't expect Apple to respond in kind just because the competition in this space is heating up, though. Instead, look for Apple to glean from these early smartwatch trailblazers. I think that once Apple believes it can create something that is very sleek, elegant, and innovative, then and only then will it consider bringing out an iWatch.
However, while creating an iWatch that connects to the iPhone is interesting, what would be just as important would be for Apple to create an SDK for an iWatch that would allow others to create apps to enhance its use. Now that I have become more exercise-conscience due to recent health issues, I would also hope a watch like this could work as a pedometer or a heart rate monitor. Perhaps it could have apps that would let me download pictures and send them to others. It could deliver updates from Facebook and Twitter, too. Who knows what the creative community could do for an iWatch if it had an SDK to work with.
I am probably asking too much, but hopefully you get my drift. While I don't want an iWatch to slice bread, I think that it could be an interesting product that could shake up the watch industry if done right. Apple is certainly capable of pulling this off and creating the standard in smartwatches in the future, should it decide to enter this market someday.
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