Watching journalists and analysts discuss the rumoured impending release of another gadget from Apple feels very much like watching Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot except of course that it isn’t usually as entertaining or as thought-provoking.
For most of 2012 we were inundated with stories about how Apple would release a TV (including, I am ashamed to admit, me - but hey, that was back in 2011). When the TV failed to materialise and even the slowest of journalists realised that every ounce of interest had been wrung out of this particular possibility, the world switched its attention to the possibility that Apple might release a watch.
The Apple iWatch rumours, made news have gathered steam this year. Hardly a day goes by without a story appearing, wrapped around a new piece of evidence about the iWatch’s imminent announcement. Bloomberg reported recently that Apple had a team of 100 people working on the watch. This was then echoed in literally dozens of other articles, superimposed on another rumour from the New York Times saying that the watch would be made using curved glass.
Of course, to complete the picture, no story about the iWatch was complete without the completely banal comparisons of the iWatch with the clever watches of characters like Dick Tracy, Inspector Gadget and James Bond.
Whilst it is possible that Apple may be about to release a watch, or even a TV, I somehow doubt it. But even if they do, I am not convinced there is that much of a market for these devices.
Overall, the watch market is said to be heading for $47 billion by 2017. This is mainly driven by the luxury end of the market where watches cost between $1000 and $5000. The point about these watches however is that they are essentially a blend of jewellery, high craftsmanship and status. The people that buy a Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watch in 18-carat pink gold, are simply not going to buy something that makes them look like a pocket-protector wearing engineer.
At the other end of the market, there is already a “smart watch” on the market called the 'Pebble' that retails for $150 US. This watch can communicate with an iPhone or Android smartphone and show when your phone is ringing or when a text message has arrived. It uses a black and white ePaper display and whilst it is functional and not unattractive, it would be stretch to describe it as anything other than plain.
Getting to a watch that actually does function like a phone and has a colour display is the “i’m Watch". This watch is much more functional and has a better display than the Pebble. However, it is more expensive, costing between $369 and $19,000 but more importantly, it weighs a massive 90 - 170g (the 170g is for the version of the watch in white gold with diamonds). By comparison, the Apple iPhone 5 weighs 112 g. So this watch is somewhat similar to wearing an iPhone on your wrist.
It is possible that Apple, with all of its engineering capability will be able to produce a device that is as light as the iPod Nano and does more than tell the time and play music. The difficulty they face is that more components and functionality means more weight and less battery life. So unless the device is intended to double-up as a form of weight training aid, it is unlikely to be comfortable to wear. The trade off between form and function with a watch will also have an impact on whether consumers see the device as being truly useful. It will never replace a phone and so the question is, how does it usefully enhance the phone that you are already carrying around?
The other point is that Apple’s previous watch-like device, the iPod Nano combined with a watch strap , was not that popular (as a watch). I wore one for most of 2012 and although I would get positive comments and surprise from people discovering that my watch was an iPod, I never met anyone else with one. This included several thousand Apple devotees at the Apple developer conference in San Francisco. Apple’s decision to change the form factor of the iPod Nano this year really confirmed that the ability to turn it into a watch was not seen as being that important to them.
Wearable computing will come of age and we will be wearing sensors and other devices embedded into our clothing and jewellery. However, I think it will only really be accepted when the technology is invisible and doesn’t scream out “Geek”,
David Glance is a director at the Centre for Software Practice at The University of Western Australia.