If you believe the doom-and-gloom Apple pundits, the company has lost its ability to innovate.
Last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook promised new products in 2014, but we’ve now made it through most of the year without much beyond some minor upgrades to Macs. Meanwhile, competitors like Samsung and Google have been cranking out new products like big-screen phones, smartwatches, and fancy headphones all year long.
Realistically, it hasn’t been that long since Apple introduced a new product category. The iPad arrived in 2010, three years after the iPhone. And the iPhone came almost six years after the first iPod.
But as several folks in the know have reported, Apple is gearing up to release its next new product category in October: A wearable wrist computer most are calling the iWatch.
It’s going to be a critical moment in Cook’s reign as CEO. Can he ignite the same kind of excitement around a new product like his predecessor Steve Jobs did? Or, as the Apple naysayers think, is innovation truly dead at the company now that he’s gone?
So the pressure is on for Apple, the same company that showed the world how a modern smartphone and tablet should work, to do the same with its take on a wearable device. It’s not going to be easy.
We’ve seen several companies attempt to make a smartwatch over the last few years, but none have achieved anything close to a mainstream success with consumers. Samsung alone has released five different smartwatch models in the last 10 months. None of them are very good. So far, the only wearable devices that have seen any sort of success with consumers are fitness bands like the Jawbone UP or FitBit Flex.
According to experts in the mobile world, Apple has its work cut out for it in terms of design, usability, battery life, and more. Unless Apple can come up with something significantly different than today’s smartwatches, the iWatch will be a dud.
The problem with today’s smartwatches is that they’re essentially shrunken-down smartphones, not just in terms of design, but internal specs too, according to Canalys analyst Daniel Matte. Smartwatches like Samsung’s line of Gear devices or LG’s new G watch use many of the same components as smartphones, which explains their chunky designs and generally terrible battery life.
“The experience we’ve been getting so far has been the smartphone experience with less,” Matte said in an interview with Business Insider.
What Apple needs to do with its iWatch, according to Matte, is rethink the kinds of components and sensors it puts into the device instead of going the obvious route and just creating a mini smartphone with a watchband attached to it.
New kinds of components, not just the same silicon inside your iPhone, will give Apple leeway to explore new and innovative designs that we haven’t seen in smartwatches yet. And the good news for Apple is that it’s very good at securing such components before its competitors can.
Matte predicts that Apple’s take on a smartwatch will be at least two years ahead of the competition, much the same way the original iPhone leapfrogged smartphones from the early 2000s by several years. All those companies making smartwatches today may struggle to catch up to Apple.
So, what would that look like? According to New York Times reporter Nick Bilton, who originally broke the news that Apple is making a smartwatch, the device will have a curved glass design. Reuters reported in June that Apple’s watch will have a 2.5-inch display. That may seem large by today’s smartwatch standards — thick and heavy watches like the LG G watch have ~1.6-inch screens — but specialised components like what Matte thinks Apple will use could make such a form factor possible.
Tracking Your Movement
Sensors will have to play a big role in the iWatch too. In June, Apple introduced an app called Health, which third-party health and fitness hardware manufacturers can plug into and dump data about vitals into the iPhone. The app, and its platform called HealthKit, will launch this fall as part of iOS 8, the new operating system for iPhones. Many think Apple will use the iWatch to tie into Health too.
But Matte doesn’t think it’s viable for Apple to pack in as many sensors as previously reported. For example, Mark Gurman of 9to5Mac has reported that the iWatch might have sensors that can track vitals like glucose levels in the blood and hydration. But Matte says those kind of sensors are far too sophisticated based on today’s technology.
“Theres’ a graveyard of companies that have tired to do that,” Matte said of such health trackers. It’s more likely the iWatch will only be able to track basic stuff like motion and heart rate.
Apple will also have to make better use of those sensors in order to differentiate the iWatch, Matte said. For example, it would need to be contextually aware when you’re biking, running, walking, or sitting still and display notifications on its screen that are relevant to you in those situations. For example, if the watch detects you running, your run-tracking app could automatically launch.
The Battery Problem
Battery life will be key too. It’s not a big deal to charge up your smartphone every night, but it’s going to be super annoying to charge a device that’s designed to be strapped to your body 24/7.
Sonny Vu, the CEO of Misfit Wearables, which makes the Shine fitness tracker, says the Holy Grail will be to have a device that can last a lot longer than just a day or two on a charge like most colour screen watches today. (The Shine, which doesn’t have a display, is powered by a regular watch battery and can last a few months before it needs a replacement.)
“I think the next leap in smartwatch awesomeness would take this to either two weeks or three months plus,” Vu said in an email to Business Insider. “Anything in between would risk users forgetting where they put their charger.”
One solution in the near term would be to come up with a method that can charge the device in five minutes or less. Another would be to use kinetic charging and possibly tie that into the users exercise, Vu said.
What’s On The Screen?
Finally, there’s the software. Today’s smartwatches like those running Google’s smartwatch OS Android Wear are far too noisy. They mirror every text, email, and tweet that hits your phone on your wrist. It’s annoying, and clearly not the answer if a gadget is going to appeal to mainstream consumers. (Techies seem to love it though.)
Myriam Joire, Chief Evangelist at Pebble, the maker of the best smartwatch you can buy, sees it a different away. A smartwatch, in her view, should be a watch first, and then “light up” after you pair it with your smartphone.
“It opens up this new universe when you connect it to your phone,” Joire said in an interview with Business Insider. “Connecting the watch to the phone instantly makes it more useful. Notifications is the killer app.”
But the real challenge is managing those notifications. Matte thinks Apple’s watch will need to run a stripped-down version of iOS, something that doesn’t necessarily mimic what’s on your phone, but displays what you need when you need it. Nothing else.
If and when Apple releases the iWatch, you can expect the pundits to scream and holler that it doesn’t do enough. But based on the current state of smartwatches, that’s probably a good thing.
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