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Apple iWatch: What's the point?

Apple’s rumoured iWatch, a device that has yet to be confirmed by the company but has been turning up in reports from all sorts of eminent publications, is poised to be the ‘next big thing in tech’. But for a concept that is being met with so much enthusiasm, it strikes me as a particularly useless idea. That’s not to say it won’t sell - Apple fans are loyal enough to show up in droves for anything and the general public is receptive to any gadget that’s marketed well enough. However, the iWatch will need to do a lot more than the initial reports are promising if it stands any chance at spurring a smart watch market.

With its shares fluctuating, its cool factor being threatened by Samsung, and its perch atop the consumer electronics sector growing more precarious every day, Apple has a lot at stake. Whatever device it releases next will have to be as market-disrupting as the iPod and the iPad; it will need to become a ‘must-have’ item. Experts have long predicted that wearable tech will be the next such frontier, and Apple is apparently preparing to swoop in. (NB: The company appears to be taking that literally, as suggested by a recent patent for a 'smart shoe' technology.)

But Apple is not the only firm with smart watches on its mind; Kickstarter favourite Pebble, an E-Paper-based watch, raised more than $10 million (£6.4 million) on the fundraising platform, and at CES we saw the launch of a handful of smart watches, including Italian upstart I’m Watch. But several thousand crowd-funders do not a market make. Just because the tech industry and some early adopters are hedging their bets on wristwear as technology, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

What we know so far about the so-called iWatch is that it will be built from Corning’s bendable Willow Glass and run a simplified version of iOS. According to reports, it will bring smartphone functionality to users’ wrists...but not much else. And that’s wherein the problem lies: if it is reconceptualised to perform tasks that separate it from your handset, it could certainly fill the gap between smartphone and niche gadget. But if it is, as the rumours suggest, just another place from which to send text messages and check Twitter, I’ll pass, thank you very much.

The iWatch has a handful of things working against it: an ostensibly tiny screen, a fraction of that of most smartphones - which, meanwhile, are getting bigger and bigger; a mandate to sit (comfortably) on a user’s wrist at all times, though timepieces are increasingly being replaced by smartphones; and an imperative to somehow make itself indispensable, even as we complain about the amount of gadgets we carry around with us on a daily basis.

Nike’s FuelBand, however, is a pre-eminent example of wearable tech done right, and Apple should look to it as a source of inspiration. The plastic bracelet records users’ activity and calories burned through a system of NikeFuel points, using gamification to inextricably link users’ fitness to Nike’s existing ecosystem - a great strategy for its own cross-marketing. But, more importantly, the FuelBand has a specific purpose that necessitates the user wear it at all times and that performs a function that a smartphone can’t. If the iWatch is to make an impact, it will have to offer a similar proposition. And that’s a tall order.