Can a 'nifty' iWatch from Apple catch on?

As a phone, maybe not; but as a health monitor, maybe

A watch that doubles as a computer and two-way radio has been a technology vision since at least the 1950s.

Recently, reports that Apple is building an iWatch have lit a fire under the smart watch concept, at least in part because of Apple's past success with introducing new technologies. That, combined with the arrival of bendable glass -- it's called Willow Glass -- from Corning Glass and recent talk by Google of wearable computers and you've got all you need to feed the rumor mill.

According to the New York Times, Apple is experimenting with wristwatch-like computing devices made of curve glass. Bloomberg reported Apple has a team of 100 product designers working on such a device that might offer some of the functions of the iPhone and iPad. And the Wall Street Journal said Apple has discussed the iWatch concept with its manufacturing partner, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co.

"I think an iWatch is a pretty nifty idea," IDC analyst Ramon Llamas said in an interview today. "The way I look at it is that we're moving into an era of wearable computers and a watch makes sense from a portability and practicality standpoint. You don't even have to know it's there on your wrist. A watch makes sense."

Just how the device would function seems to be the biggest unknown, since it isn't clear whether Apple would pair the watch with the iPhone through Bluetooth or some other means.

To Llamas, it wouldn't make sense for the iWatch to be a phone on its own, or even a phone somehow paired with another cell phone. "That's silly," Llamas said. "If I get a call, I want to pick up my phone. How am I going to hear a call on my watch?"

The same could be said for video chats, Llamas said. "I can already do video chat on my iPhone and it has a bigger screen."

Llamas believes that the Dick Tracy two-way wristwatch radio and video call device "was a great idea for the '50s and '60s, a novelty, but here in the 21st century, having a video or phone watch, well, you'd have a hard time to make that happen."

The iWatch would have to be something people use differently, not simply a replacement for a cell phone, Llamas said. "An iWatch would be a terrific complement to other devices," he said.

Still, Llamas and other analysts believe there could be many valuable functions for computing on a wristwatch. "Think of the health implications of an iWatch, for taking your pulse and connecting to a set of health-related applications," Llamas said.

An iWatch could be a great mobile payment vehicle, especially if Apple built in an NFC chip. "You could transmit information for payments just by touching the watch to a reader," Llamas said.

An iWatch would also be great for receiving notifications of upcoming meetings or for alerts on good fares for airline travel. With Siri voice assistant capability, it would be relatively easy to transmit a text message or email quickly, analysts said.

Llamas argued that an iWatch would make more sense for wearable computing applications than Google's glasses. "Not all of us wear glasses, and they could fall off" more easily than a watch, Llamas said.

Since there are already wearable computing devices on the market, Apple shouldn't assume its iWatch will automatically catch on, unless it provides a range of functions that consumers want, some analysts warned.

"Apple has distinguished itself in the industry for innovative, easy-to-use products, but it's unclear whether a smartwatch will be a revolutionary product for Apple as the iPod and iPhone were when first introduced," said Karl Volkman, the chief technology officer at SRV Network, a networking consultancy. "An iWatch would have to provide significantly better capabilities and usability than its competitors to do so.

"Products like the Sony SmartWatch and MetaWatch have started the trend," Volkman added. "It makes sense for Apple to collect information about all available products and attempt to create a better, more well-rounded device that can outsmart competitors."

Jawbone Inc. and Nike also sell computing devices worn on the wrist to monitor a person's activities, analysts noted.

Big players in the tech industry haven't always done well with smartwatches, with analysts noting that Microsoft showed off a smartwatch concept a decade ago at the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show. That device was based on Smart Personal Objects Technology. Several watch makers incorporated the technology for a few years, but it never took off.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, noted that computing components have gotten smaller, cheaper and much more powerful since the Microsoft concept was announced, but that doesn't mean Apple will succeed.

"Most people are giving up watches in favor of just using their smartphones," Gold noted. "I'm not sure what bucking the trend means for Apple. What would Apple's product benefits be? Would it replace my phone? Would it replace my iPod, which my iPhone is already replacing? I'd have to see a strong value proposition before I'm convinced this is a good idea."

Llamas is nonetheless sure that Apple's interest in an iWatch will provoke interest by consumers in wearable computers. "That's the great thing about Apple," Llamas said. "There's certain to be a number of followers, like the BlackBerries and the Qualcomms and the Linuxes."

Samsung showed off bendable displays at the 2013 CES International, and can be expected to enter the wearable computing space in a big way, several analysts said.

In addition, wearable computing is expected to be a major theme at the upcoming Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld (US)

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