iWatch: Guesses, Theories, and Unknowns

Source: iWatch Concept by Todd Hamilton

It looks like we finally have a (more or less definite) launch date for Apple’s next major new product: the iWatch. Re/code’s John Paczkowski reported on Wednesday that Apple plans to unveil a wearable device, widely thought to be the iWatch, at a September 9 event alongside the new iPhone 6. Paczkowski wrote that the device “will, predictably, make good use of Apple’s HealthKit health and fitness platform. It will also — predictably – make good use of HomeKit, the company’s new framework for controlling connected devices — though it’s not clear how broadly or in what way.”

A September 9 announcement would have Apple unveiling the wearable device earlier than most analysts have expected. Many, including Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster, anticipated that the potential iWatch wouldn’t be announced until after the new iPhone 6 models are launched, perhaps in October. While it’s been widely reported that Apple is working on a wearable device, and the tech community has been calling it the iWatch for quite some time now, Apple itself hasn’t officially said anything on the matter. So what should we expect?

Though we don’t really definitively know what the iWatch will look like, what it will do, how much it will cost, or what it will need to work — as Quartz’s Dan Frommer points out – there’s been no shortage of speculation from analysts and bloggers alike to fill in the blanks. (For an idea of the extent of the rumors, reports, and concept art, take a look at roundups like MacRumorsiWatch page or CNET’s collection of rumors.)

We assume that the iWatch will take the form of something akin to a band, watch, or bracelet, though the exact form is anyone’s guess, as humorously conveyed by analyst John Gruber’s choice to refer to the iWatch as a “wrist wearable thing.” Will it look like a watch, with a small screen as a face? Will it look like a fitness band, with a futuristic curved screen?

We don’t really know, though we expect that the iWatch will feature a small, rectangular face. At least one model is expected to feature a sapphire crystal display. Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty estimates that the iWatch will cost $300, as reported by CNET, though the watch could be available in different sizes and at different price points.

While concept images are plentiful, hard facts are few and far between. Over the summer, Apple has filed patents for a weightlifting tracking device and for an “iTime” smartwatch equipped with gesture control, GPS, and push notifications. Beyond that, the rest is conjecture, rumor, and reports of varying credibility; as with any Apple patent, it’s impossible to know exactly how or when Apple intends to apply the technology.

The iWatch is expected to work in concert with another iOS device to receive messages and calls and display notifications, but will reportedly incorporate more than 10 different sensors, according to The Wall Street Journal, to track health and fitness metrics like steps, calories burned, heart rate, and sleep quality. It’s unclear so far if it will be capable of tracking blood pressure, water, caffeine, alcohol intake, or even environmental factors like air quality. (Those are all metrics suggested by Re/code’s Lauren Goode.)

The iWatch is expected to integrate heavily with the iOS 8 Health app, which is likely to display the data collected by the array of sensors on the wearable device. Apple has consulted several times with the Food and Drug Administration, and could be seeking FDA approval for the iWatch.

As reported by Cult of Mac, Morgan Stanley compiled a list of 17 of Apple’s recent hires, nine of whom were related specifically to wearable or medical fields. These hires hint at what Apple is working on, not only for its Health app and HealthKit framework, but also likely for the iWatch. Among the areas where these new employees, hired beginning in March 2013, were assigned are areas like “Blood Research,” “Respiratory Research,” “Patient Sensors Research,” and “Sleep Research.” That could point to specific capabilities for the iWatch and for the Health app, and Apple’s fashion-related hires are hoped to help Apple create a stylish smartwatch — or at least one that consumers won’t be embarrassed to wear on a regular basis.

The fact that Paczkowski reports that the iWatch will be compatible with HealthKit and HomeKit suggests that it could be not only a health tracker, but also a remote control for users’ smart home devices. That central functionality could help the iWatch communicate clear value to consumers — if they are interested in health and fitness tracking, or in equipping and controlling a smart home. Given that the iWatch is expected to combine functions of fitness wearables (like step and heart rate tracking) and smartwatches (like notifications for incoming messages), its capabilities will need to be clearly defined for consumers to understand and adopt the product.

If Apple wants to redefine the smartwatch as a product category, the iWatch will need to have clear, compelling functionality, as well as capabilities that are demonstrably different from what’s offered by the wearables already on the market. But it looks like the wait to find out if Apple can deliver is just a couple of short weeks. By the middle of September, we should know if the iWatch — or whatever Apple is actually planning to call it — will really live up to the mythic proportions of our expectations for such a small device.

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