In the world of tech, where eyes are typically focused on "the next big thing," the speculation and noise surrounding Apple's next big move continue to grow louder.
Everyone is wondering which product category Apple will disrupt next, a fair question for a company that most recently revolutionized the smartphone market just a few years after turning the music industry on its head.
Recently, rumors of Apple releasing a branded HDTV have taken a backseat to reports that Apple is working on an iWatch that could be released later this year, although most recent reports push a possible launch date back into 2014.
But whatever the ship date, the company with a penchant for groundbreaking devices seems to be setting its sights on... wristwear.
While the very notion of wearable technology may seem futuristic, if not a bit absurd, the evidence that Apple has something secretive and potentially brilliant brewing behind its secretive walls in Cupertino is strong.
Here's what we know so far. Apple is working on an iWatch.
News that Apple was working on a smartwatch really picked up steam this past February when the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg each reported independently that Apple was developing an iWatch said to feature a curved piece of glass designed to fit comfortably over a user's wrist.
The timing of the reports, which all came during the span of one week, had the markings of a classic product leak, a strategy Apple will infrequently employ in order to pique the public's interest in an upcoming product.
There's no question that Apple is always researching and developing far-reaching technologies and radical products that have no chance of hitting the market anytime soon. That said, the rumored iWatch does not seem to fall into this category.
On the contrary, Apple's work on the iWatch appears to be substantial. By all accounts, the iWatch is much more than a cool research and development project; it's a product Apple is devoting a lot of resources to in the expectation that it hits the market sooner rather than later.
Rumors of an iWatch really went into turbo mode when Bloomberg reported that Apple now has more than 100 employees working on the project. The team is reportedly comprised of product managers, individuals from Apple's marketing group, and more importantly, a number of software and hardware engineers who previously worked on the iPhone and the iPad.
Citing people familiar with Apple's plans, Bloomberg noted that "the team's size suggests Apple is beyond the experimentation phase in its development."
Also lending credence to the maturity of Apple's iWatch project are the folks rumored to be working on it, such as James Foster, a Senior Director of Engineering at Apple.
Shedding even more light on the team, The Verge subsequently reported that Apple's iWatch project is being led by Jony Ive, who is overseeing a team of more than 100 engineers.
While one may be quick to question why Apple's design guru is spearheading the project, remember that Ive took on added responsibilities at Apple following the departure of Scott Forstall. In addition to his position as Apple's Senior VP of Industrial Design, Ive is also the head of Apple's Human Interface group where he's now responsible for overseeing software design across the entirety of Apple's product line.
What's more, additional reports have indicated that Apple has hired a number of people with expertise in sensors and "related technologies" as they relate to mobile devices and wearable technology.
One such hire was wearable technology expert Richard DeVaul, who joined Apple back in March of 2010. With a PhD from MIT in Media Arts & Sciences, DeVaul is considered one of the top experts when it comes to integrating technology into wearable, mobile, and portable applications. While at Apple, DeVaul worked as a Senior Prototype Engineer where it was rumored he worked on a top secret project that only seven people at Apple were aware of at the time, one of which was Jony Ive.
Via LinkedIn, DeVaul described his responsibilities thusly: "Investigation and rapid prototyping of new technologies and features across Apple's product line."
DeVaul, however, was only at Apple for about 18 months before he left to take a position at Google.
But even before DeVaul, Apple had demonstrated an extreme interest in watch design. Ive is a self professed watch connoisseur who in the early-mid 2000s visited Nike factories to observe their watch manufacturing methods.
What's more, Ive at the time ordered boxes of sports watches from Nike for him and his team to inspect.
BusinessInsider was able to catch up with former Nike Creative Director Scott Wilson who shed some light on Ive's interest in watchwear.
``He and others in the design group just requested them and we sent them a ton of Nike Presto Digital Bracelets and the aluminum Oregon Series Alti-Compass watches. Was flattered that they were requesting them. Thought they were only personal requests but their materials guy followed up with many questions on the materials and processes. This meshes up with their research in watch manufacturing during that timeframe which has been documented in previous stories. They definitely drew upon watch industry techniques and manufacturing in their products since the first iPhone. Interesting that it may come full circle to an actual iWatch at some point.''
WHAT WILL IWATCH DO??
Okay, so it seems abundantly clear that Apple is, in fact, working on a smartwatch of some kind. But just what exactly will it do?
Well for starters, let's start with the OS that will power it. The rumored device will reportedly run on a modified version of Apple's iOS and will consequently be more complex and powerful than, say, the stunted OS that currently powers Apple's iPod Nano.
It's also believed that the device is being designed to work closely with Apple's iPhone. Some use-case scenarios proffered by Apple patent filings detail how an iWatch might allow a user to respond to alerts sent from other devices and "even direct the operations of the portable electronic device to an extent limited by the accessory device user interface."
Apple patent filings further explain that a user could use an iWatch type device to accomplish tasks such as adjusting the running order of a playlist, review a list of recent phone calls, and even answer a text message via a virtual keyboard on the flexible display.
Using the device to capture images and video footage is also a possibility laid out by Apple.
While patent filings are typically broad by nature, Bloomberg not to long ago relayed some more details:
``Features under consideration include letting users make calls, see the identity of incoming callers and check map coordinates, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans aren't public. It would also house a pedometer for counting steps and sensors for monitoring health-related data, such as heart rates..."
And there have been reports that Apple's iWatch will come with an accelerometer capable of tracking a user's movements throughout the day and accordingly updating information such as calories burned.
In any of this sounds somewhat familiar, it's because Nike's FuelBand currently does the same thing. Nike's FuelBand app also links up to an iPhone app which allows users to check their activity history, set daily activity goals, and monitor their progress along the way. It also lets users compare their daily activity metrics with friends.
And it just so happens that Apple CEO Tim Cook sits on Nike's board of directors and happens to wear a Nike FuelBand himself. Other features Apple may deploy with an iWatch include NFC functionality, Siri, and navigation software.
And oh yes, it might just tell time as well.
What will it look like?
This is where things get interesting. Apple has a number of patents relating to wearable technology, but one of their more notable patents on the matter (US Patent 20130044215) was filed back in August 2011 and published this past February.
The patent describes a device with a flexible display and bi-stable springs, allowing for two equilibrium positions. In laymen's terms, the device described is akin to a slap bracelet insofar as it has two distinct configurations; it has the ability to be perfectly straight and to also snugly wrap around a user's wrist when need be.
Apple's patent reads in part:
``In a first equilibrium position they can be flat. The second equilibrium is typically reached by slapping the flat embodiment across the wrist, at which point the bracelet curls around the wrist and stays relatively secure in a roughly circular position."
Much like the iPhone, the focal point of the iWatch would be a large and dynamic screen. One inherent problem, however, is that individuals have wrists of varying sizes. Consequently, how can Apple design a watch and account for a display that would necessarily be slightly different from user to user?
Apple's patent describes a clever solution wherein sensors on the watch would detect unused portions of the display and deactivate them accordingly. This, Apple writes, would "have the additional advantage of saving accessory device power."
As you can see from Apple's patent illustration above, the sensors would detect where the watch overlaps on a user's wrist. Consequently, the device would be able to provide a seamless display of information no matter the wrist size of the user.
And here's what a side view of the device would look like.
Below is a patent drawing illustrating what an iWatch style device would look like from the top in its uncurved state.
Item 302 points to the device's flexible display while item 306 points to the opposite side of the device's electronic modules which are detailed below.
This patent illustration purports to show what an iWatch might look like from the bottom.
Apple's patent explains the numbers above:
``Kinetic energy gathering device 502 is shown on the right side of flexible electronic module 408. One of the advantages of having the accessory device on an extremity is that it is an ideal location for gathering kinetic energy. The simple motion of a user's arm or leg allows the accessory device to harness some of that energy for charging battery 504.''
Item 506 is the device's antenna which would be able to pass data either via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or "any other suitable wireless protocol." Apple's patent adds:
``Connector 508 allows accessory device 400 to be connected by wire to another electronic device for activities such as charging, performing firmware updates, or even for reconfiguring the device. Connector 508 can consist of a plug as shown, or could have a small tab that extended from the flexible electronic module for easily plugging into a computer port.''
And as for the device's dimensions, Apple's patent indicates that the wider the better:
``As the accessory device widens its potential for functionality also increases. At a width of a few inches the display can function to temporarily view and manipulate the screen of the portable electronic device it is in communication with. This might be desirable when the portable electronic device is stored in an inconvenient location such as a cargo pocket, or the bottom of a backpack. A larger display is also more desirable for map viewing. The arm mounted location makes map viewing a desirable function for such a device, as a traveler or explorer can easily reference the information with a flick of the wrist while exploring. A wider overall device width also allows for a larger flexible electronic module. This allows more space for a larger battery, and additional sensors...''
Lastly, it's worth noting that one of the authors of the aforementioned patent is Fletcher Rothkopf. Rothkopf's LinkedIn profile reveals, amongst a number of achievements, that he has led engineers at Apple "to develop novel sensor technology for future-generation products."
The Taiwanese-based newspaper Economic Times recently claimed that Apple recently began sampling 1.5-inch OLED displays from RITEK as part of a small scale trial production run. Notably, the report says that Apple initially wanted to use 1.8-inch displays for the iWatch before deciding that the form factor would ultimately be too large. As a point of reference, the current iPod Nano screen is 2.5 inches on the diagonal. It's also worth noting that the 6th generation iPod Nano -- which, incidentally, was often used as a watch by consumers -- has a screen that's just 1.54 inches.
However, reports like these should be taken with a grain of salt. Remember, Apple routinely tests various screen sizes for products before ultimately coming to a final form factor. For instance, Apple reportedly tested a number of display sizes during development of the iPad before deciding to go with a 9.7-inch display.
WHEN WILL IT COME OUT?
Both The Verge and Bloomberg reported independently of one another that Apple is planning to release the iWatch as early as 2013. If this proves to true, expect Apple to try and time the launch date in time to take advantage of the always busy and profitable holiday shopping season which kicks off right after Thanksgiving.
As with any new and potentially revolutionary new product, challenges are plentiful.
A recent report from The Verge says that Apple's iWatch team has reportedly run into trouble with battery life. While Apple would like its iWatch to run for 4-5 days between charges, current prototypes are reportedly petering out after just a "couple days max."
With respect to battery life, the Wall Street Journal previously noted that Apple has been working closely with Foxconn on solutions to make wearable technologies more power efficient.
Because the iWatch will reportedly work in conjunction with the iPhone, The Verge also noted that Apple has plenty of work to do on iOS for the iPhone to ensure that the devices can communicate with each other.
"We're also told Apple has some work to do with iOS on the iPhone, which currently has several hooks for supporting a watch-like device but lacks the appropriate interface or settings to make it work properly.''
Most recently, typically reliable KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo chimed in and noted that the iWatch may not hit store shelves until the second half of 2014. In a note to investors, Kuo wrote that Apple at the present time may not have the resources to develop iWatch friendly version of iOS because it would require vast changes to the impending release of iOS 7.
Another potential problem for Apple's iWatch lies in its rumored elegant curved glass design. Specifically, which company will be supplying the glass?
To that end, Corning, the purveyor of the Gorilla Glass currently used by Apple on the iPhone, recently noted that it will be at least three years before their proprietary flexible glass will be ready for inclusion in shipping products.
So perhaps that leaves room for LG to step up given that CEO Han Sang-beom recently boasted that his company would be more than capable of supplying Apple with flexible OLED displays by late 2013.
Will the iWatch be a success for Apple?
Apple only enters new product categories when it feels it can really add something of value. At the same time, Apple only enters markets where it can generate a significant amount of revenue. It is, after all, why Apple continues to refer to its Apple TV as nothing more than a hobby.
To that end, Citigroup analyst Oliver Chen recently detailed how an iWatch might provide a $6 billion opportunity for Apple.
Chen notes that margins on watches can sometimes be as high as 60%, a figure which is much more attractive to Apple when compared to the razor thin margins often associated with HDTVs.
In 2013 alone, Chen anticipates that the global watch industry will generate over $60 billion in sales. If Apple were to capture just 10% of that market, it would net an addition $6 billion in revenue. Taking gross margins into account, an iWatch for Apple could potentially deliver nearly $3.6 billion in profits. In contrast, if Apple were to capture 10% of the HDTV market, Chen calculates that Apple would net about $1.79 billion in profits.
In short, watches may be where the money is.
DETRACTORS and COMPETITORS
While analysts and consumers are undoubtedly looking forward to Apple's next big thing, not everyone is optimistic about Cupertino's chances to disrupt yet another product category.
In early March, Swatch CEO Nick Hayek expressed skepticism that an Apple iWatch would be able to kickstart a smartwatch revolution.
"Personally, I don't believe it's the next revolution," Hayek said. "Replacing an iPhone with an interactive terminal on your wrist is difficult. You can't have an immense display."
Hayek further explained that consumers often view watches as pieces of jewelry that they like to change often.
Aside from the inherent challenges of entering a new market, Apple may also be facing some unforeseen competition in the watch space. It's recently been reported that Samsung is looking to manufacture their own smartwatch device. Furthermore, Google is reportedly working to develop an Android-based smartwatch as well.
The notion that Apple is getting into the watch business is admittedly absurd at first glance. But truthfully, is it any stranger than Apple getting into the phone business or the portable music player business?
As with any Apple product, one can't count on its release until it's officially unveiled by Apple. That said, the evidence suggesting that Apple is in fact working on an iWatch is not only strong, but continues to grow with each passing week. And as opposed to some of the less reliable rumors regarding Apple's plans in the TV space, the bulk of Apple's iWatch rumors emanate from typically reliable mainstream publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
One final thought to consider:
Well before Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at Macworld in 2007, it was widely assumed that Apple was working on a phone of some sort. What's interesting, though, is that the device Apple showcased to the world was far more sophisticated, by leaps and bounds, than anything analysts and tech enthusiasts were envisioning.
To that end, don't be surprised if Apple's rumored iWatch is an unforeseen game changer in much the same way that the iPhone was.
Yoni Heisler is a technology writer and Mac nerd who has been using Apple products for more than 21 years. You can reach him at iOnApple1@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @EdibleApple where he's also a part-time contributor. Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.