Which way Apple ticks on the iWatch will show how gutsy the firm remains

Analyst argues it's more important how Apple positions the rumoured device, not whether it makes one

More important than whether Apple does make some kind of "iWatch" wearable device is how it does one, an analyst argued today.

Scuttlebutt has circulated in the last week -- driven by stories from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times -- that Apple is working on a reporter-dubbed "iWatch," wristwatch-like devices with curved glass displays that handle some of the tasks now relegated to smartphones and tablets.

Bloomberg claimed that a team of 100 designers is working on the project.

To Sameer Singh, a mobile analyst who writes the Tech-Thoughts blog, it's more important how Apple designs an iWatch than whether it does.

One move, which Singh called "the most obvious," would be to position an iWatch as a companion device that extends the existing functionality of the iPhone and iPad by, say, displaying message and calendar notifications, offering another input for the Siri personal assistant, and controlling smartphone/tablet features, like music playing.

On the flip side, a standalone device -- one not requiring a companion smartphone or tablet -- could be designed and marketed as a smartphone replacement for the booming sub-$200 global market. While an iWatch might not actually take and make calls, as a standalone it could handle many other smartphone tasks, such as browsing the Web, receiving navigational directions and running apps.

Assuming the talk is accurate, and Apple is designing an iWatch, which of those two paths it takes will spotlight Apple's ambition and its ability to repeat the kind of market disruptions it pulled off with first the iPhone and then the iPad.

The more conservative companion approach would, by default, limit the market to current iPhone/iPad users, would not significantly goose Apple's revenues, and said Singh, could be copied by competitors.

While a radical standalone strategy might have a better chance of generating major, long-term revenue, the technical hurdles are substantial. Singh thought it next to impossible to insert a cellular radio and a sufficient battery in such a small package, the so-small screen -- reportedly 1.5-in. -- would make interface design difficult and user navigation even harder, and Siri, a potential input mode, hasn't been a stellar performer since its launch a year and a half ago.

If Apple takes the easier companion road, it will show a conservative bent, at odds with the history of the company under co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs. The more daring standalone iWatch, however, is a much bigger risk, for if it flops and was meant as a "cheap" iPhone substitute, Apple would be even further behind rivals like Samsung in delivering models in a broad spectrum of prices.

Singh knew what he preferred.

"I'd personally advocate the standalone approach, but it's a more difficult road for sure," said Singh in a follow-up email interview this week. "Even a successful launch with that approach isn't likely to give Apple's revenue growth much of a short-term boost."

He also thought he knew which way Apple would jump.

"[That's] why I think the accessory approach is more likely," Singh said. "I also think that Apple from five years ago would have approached this problem differently. A smaller company is more likely to put more focus on a potentially disruptive idea, because the scale of immediate benefits are more attractive on a relative basis."

What he left unsaid was that Jobs -- the font of products Apple is still introducing -- no long leads the company.

A just-published patent application bolstered Singh's belief that Apple would aim the iWatch -- again, assuming it does one -- at the iPhone/iPad accessory market.

That patent application, first reported by the AppleInsider blog today and analyzed in detail by another blog, Patently Apple, describes a bracelet-style device with a flexible display that connects to other devices via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

But questions remain, said Singh. "The bigger short-term problem, apart from the interface, is really product positioning. How do you get low-end buyers to look at this as a replacement for a low-end smartphone purchase? Can you push this in emerging markets as an alternative to a cheap iPhone?"

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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