The iWatch: Apple's next big gadget?

As we heard at the end of December, sources in China have reported that Apple is preparing to release a watch tied to its cloud services that could come to market in 2013.

Late in 2011, I wrote a two-part article that analysed four industries Apple could disrupt. In the second part, I suggested Apple could shake up the watch industry. Here is what I wrote at that time:

"Apple has stumbled upon an interesting observation about the iPod nano: Many people have started to use it as a watch. A whole side industry has popped up that creates watchbands for iPod nanos. Maybe Apple never dreamed of the device as a watch, but it has become a happy new application for its smallest iPod.

Interestingly, Microsoft took a crack at this idea a few years back with a product called the SPOT watch. Its data link, which delivered news blurbs, weather, and sports bulletins, was tied to an FM radio link. Microsoft even partnered with Sunto and Swatch in an attempt to bring these watches to high-end and low-end watch buyers. Unfortunately, the SPOT watch never really took off and in 2008 Microsoft killed the product.

With a few simple tweaks, however, Apple could do very interesting things with the nano watch. What if it put a Bluetooth radio inside and allowed it to become a mirrored display to the iPhone? I normally carry my iPhone in my pocket, so when an alert comes up, I have to fish it out to see it. But what if that alert showed up on my nano watch? Or what if it added a Siri interface and tied the nano display to the iPhone? I could ask my watch to show me the last message or email I received through iMessage and it would pop up on the nano screen.

Apple could perhaps tie voice feedback to the iPhone's GPS and direct you to ‘turn right here’ or ‘head north’ to get to that coffee shop you just asked Siri about. Of course, Apple could incorporate Wi-Fi radio as well and let it get a direct link to data when connected. More logically, it could use a Bluetooth connection to tie the nano to the iPhone's 3G radio, so that it would be connected all the time. As long as it mirrors my iPhone, especially when receiving news, weather, sports updates, and messages, the nano could become one of those hot items to which iPhone buyers flock, or even a halo product that could drive iPhone sales."

Now, I have no knowledge of Apple making such a product, but the iPod nano's application as a watch surely could have spurred some internal discussion. Interestingly, it could make a lot of sense for Apple to create an iWatch. The iPhone is a great device for sending and receiving information in many ways. To do so, though, one has to actually look at it. Imagine, instead, if an iWatch could become a proxy for the iPhone screen. Key bits of data would be at your fingertips all of the time and with voice capabilities, it could also make the iPhone indispensable to users and tie them even tighter to the Apple ecosystem of services.

Pebble smart watch

A similar product, the Pebble smart watch (pictured right), will ship "as soon as possible," according to the company, which has delayed shipment due to demand and has yet to announce a final shipping date. It was a Kickstarter project that initially asked for a few hundred thousand notes, but ended up raking in 85,000 pre-orders and $10 million (£6.2 million) in less than a month. In fact, I was one of the early backers and pre-ordered a Pebble smart watch straightaway. This watch is significant because it displays text messages, email, and other information from Android and iOS phones via Bluetooth.

I imagine that all of the interest in a smartphone-connected watch has gotten the attention of Apple as well as Google, Samsung, and others. My only issue is with the design of the Pebble device, which is quite geeky and lacks style. In fact, that would be one of the potential problems for any smart watch, as watches are worn not only to tell the time, but to make a fashion statement. This has me drooling, though, for a potential iWatch designed by Jony Ive, since all of the products he designs are very attractive.

I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my Pebble smart watch. Even with its geeky design, if it works as advertised, I will gladly wear it because of its functionality. For us geeks, that is okay. For the mass consumer market, though, it will have to embrace a trendier design to appeal to a broader audience.

Apple did not invent the MP3 player, the smartphone, or the tablet, but it improved those devices and redefined what they could do. The same could be the case with smart watches. I have one in my museum that was designed by Seiko in 1982 and since then, there have been many more attempts at computer watches and smart watches. But as with MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets, Apple could reinvent the smart watch by giving it a unique aesthetic and potentially dominate the market.