Wednesday, February 13, 2013

iWatch, iWonder

News this week that Apple is apparently developing an 'iWatch' has sent the blogosphere - or at least that part which devours everything and anything that comes out of the Cupertino, California, company - into a right tiz.

Not content with getting worked up about the next iPhone(s) and iPad(s), Applewatchers have been handed a tasty teaser of the possibility of a wrist-borne 'i' device. According to the New York Times, Apple is believed to be developing a digital watch which uses a special, flexible glass that would enable the device to wrap around the wrist, much like the Nike+ FuelBand device does today.

The FuelBand tracks the physical activity of its owner, uploading the information wirelessly into a smartphone. It's an extension of the training shoe-fitted Nike+ sensor device that Nike and Apple launched a few years ago that synced information with iPod Nanos.

It's not a stretch, then, that Apple could be combining features of their fourth-generation Nano - the square one with the touchscreen - with the FuelBand concept. For a start, that Nano could be easily turned into a wrist accessory by just adding a dedicated strap and case combo. Nanos, going back to the original, have been highly popular with joggers and fitness fanatics, and there have been plenty of sweat-proof Neoprene cases and armwraps to go with them.

What remains to be seen is whether the iWatch will also include a phone. For years, technology dreamers have talked about 'wearable' electronics, with phone-watches regarded as the Holy Grail. While the idea of walking around like Dick Tracy with your wrist clamped to your ear may have been exciting in the 1930s, the practicalities are somewhat different.

A phone in a device the size of a wristwatch is technically possible, but before we get too carried away, remember the debacle over the iPhone 4? Apple's siting of the internal antenna was the root of that problem, improved partially by the addition of $1 rubber bumpers, and solved altogether in the iPhone 4S and 5.

For it to work in a Nano-sized device would require an effective antenna - which would require Apple's miniaturisation experts to put in some extra hours of developing it.

Then there is the fashion statement it would make: we quite rightly accused early adopters of housebrick-sized mobile phones of being utter tools for lugging those things around (though their saving grace was that their batteries didn't last long enough for any lasting damage to credibility. A wristwatch phone would be a different matter.

For now, however, the sensible expectation is that an iWatch will simply be a sports watch extension of the iPod family, that combines the Nano and FuelBand in a single device, with either Bluetooth connectivity or a simple audio jack for headphones.

Will it sell? Sounds like a gamble to me, but there have been signs coming out of Cupertino that new Apple CEO Tim Cook holds an interest in developing health and wellbeing devices or, at the very least, apps for the iPad and iPhone that can play a greater part in consumers taking better care of themselves.

The odd thing is that with the core (ho-ho) of Apple's strategy being the mobile 'i' devices like the iPhone and iPad - designed to consolidate as many applications as possible on a single platform - it will be interesting to see how Apple would go about selling a device with such a relatively narrow scope as an iWatch. But then, Apple have been able to sell snow to the eskimo before, so why not something else no one really needs, but will go and buy in any case?

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