Apple’s New Device Isn’t What You Think It Is—and It’s Already Out

Forecasting today’s biggest business and tech trends.
Feb. 18 2014 10:57 AM

Apple Has Already Released the iWatch

The war for wearables is heating up—and the least important battle is the wearables themselves.

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That’s part of the reason why I think the Apple of 2014 will ship the futuristic iWatch—the one suggested in the utility application. It’ll have all the trimmings: the continuous screen flow, the edge-to-edge display, snap-to-fit action, and a new take on iOS’s multitouch gestural interface.

Apple hasn’t held this technology back; reporters simply got their hands on it too early. To maximize the useful term life of a utility patent, technology companies need to file as quickly as possible after they conceive of an idea—ideally, long before its impending release. But filing too early carries significant risk, namely that a competitor will see the patent filing and race to develop an alternative of its own. So, there’s a line to be walked. Companies like Apple, with billions of dollars on the line, have made a precise science of when and where to file. (Consider the most applicable precedent: Apple started development of the iPhone in 2004, about three years prior to its public debut. If the pattern holds true, then dating back from the first rumors of the iWatch’s existence in late 2009 and early 2010, we could expect something this year.)

One factor in why we haven’t seen the iWatch sooner is that it didn’t have an ecosystem. The platform surrounding any wearable device—all the ancillary devices, hubs, locations, cloud-based data sources, and Wi-Fi-enabled media streaming—is more important than the wearable itself. This is why Google Glass, aside from the dorky design, underwhelmed many of its testers during the past year: The lack of anything to do with Glass, beyond taking pictures and voice-commanding Google search on the go, was its biggest weakness.* The apps, not the device, are what really matter.

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Apple, for its part, is working with scientists and health experts to give the iWatch heart-monitoring, workout-tracking, and even sleep-analyzing capabilities. But these are trivial in the long run—plenty of devices on the market can do these things reasonably well. The real secret sauce is in how the iWatch will interface with every other device in the Apple panoply. IBeacon, a location-based technology slipped into iOS 7, will enable iDevices to transmit effortlessly to one another across Bluetooth 4.0 signals. Plenty of analysts are predicting a lucrative future for iBeacon as a retail play, in the form of Minority Report–style targeted ads.

But iBeacon is much more than that. It is the infrastructure on which the iWatch will run. For all intents and purposes, iBeacon is the iWatch. The advantage of a wearable device, after all, rests in its ability to interact with the Internet of Things. All that remains for Apple is to build its Internet around the world’s things. As of early 2014, iBeacon is picking up a lot of attention from developers and partners, but it hasn’t reached the critical mass necessary to make iWatch immediately and ubiquitously useful. In theory, every device running iOS 7 is a beacon. But more software needs to be written to take advantage of that fact. IDevices are now theoretically able to co-stream media, transmit information, update one another, and even physically link up to form new device configurations. Developers will have to unlock this potential, just as the market forces of the App Store will need to tap iBeacon’s potential.

And therein lies Apple’s dilemma. It needs to get people excited about iBeacon so that people make apps for it, before it launches the iWatch. At the same time, it can’t wait too long. If Google claims the Internet of Things first—which it might—then Apple will lose the war before firing its first shot. Apple’s best move will be to bring a handful of its brightest developers into the fold now to help it find the killer apps for iBeacon. (I strongly suspect that process has begun.)

Ultimately, Apple will need the iWatch to look sexy, and it will. But in the runup to the iWatch’s release, sex appeal will be the least of its concerns. Utility will be everything. Before Apple can sell us the iWatch we want, it’ll have to make the most of the iWatch we’ve got.

Correction, Feb. 18, 2014: This article originally stated that Google has a design partnership with Warby Parker for Google Glass. It does not, and the sentences saying so have been deleted. (Return.)

Jon Nathanson is a technology columnist, startup investor, and strategy consultant in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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