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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iWatch concept by Todd Hamilton

Illustration courtesy of Todd Hamilton/Flickr

Almost exactly a year ago, the blog AppleInsider revealed concept drawings of an iWatch, a wearable device rumored to be in development by Apple. Pundits and tech enthusiasts had been gossiping about the iWatch since at least 2010, but for years its very existence had been hypothetical. Information about the project had come in abundant supply and scant substance.

AppleInsider’s post had plenty of substance: It pulled its pictures directly from an Apple patent filing dated Feb. 21, 2013. Either Apple was hard at work on a wrist-based device, or it was stacking paper at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office purely to misdirect the press and its competitors. At least something seemed to be in the planning stages at 1 Infinite Loop.

That something, dubbed a “Bi-Stable Spring With Flexible Display” in the patent application, looked more like a wristband than a watch. But it was a wristband that would have fit right into a Star Trek movie. It had a flexible, bendable display (probably OLED). It locked into place around the arm like a snap bracelet. Most intriguingly, its display was labeled “Continuous,” meaning that a sensing mechanism would enable the watch to set the edge of its viewable screen to wherever the band was snapped into place. If the band were laid out end to end, it would display as normal. And if it were curled up, with one end overlapping the other, it would ignore the unused portion and adjust its screen flow, seamlessly, over the junction.

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The iWatch wasn’t a watch as we commonly think of that term; the whole thing was a wearable, interactive screen. Imagine a TV that you can bend into any geometric shape, whose screen automatically adjusts to the new configuration. Now imagine that TV wrapped around your wrist.

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IWatch concept, from an Apple patent application from February 2013.

Courtesy of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Pub. No. US 2013/0044215 A1

This was some pretty radical stuff. In fact, it was so far out there that many analysts thought the product wasn’t even feasible as shown. They figured some fundamental advances in OLED technology, and maybe even in electrical engineering, needed to take place before Apple could ship the product, as shown, at a mass-market price.

Without further leaks, documents, or drawings to sustain it, the iWatch-mania of late winter 2013 ran its course. The rest of the year saw the iWatch slip back into relative obscurity, overtaken by Google Glass, a prototype in actual circulation.

Until now. Rumors of the iWatch’s impending release have rekindled the attentions of fans and skeptics alike. Yet most of today’s speculative renderings are a lot more mundane than last year’s. They show something a lot more watchlike: a curved screen, or maybe even a flat screen, mounted to, or embedded in, a fixed-width band. There is no shortage of theoretical mock-ups—and, while some of them are visually impressive, none of them captures the vaguely science-fiction essence of the one seen in the patent application. Gone are the continuous screen flow and the full-band display, the ostensible raisons d’être of the patent. In their place are more practical features: buttons, edges, and clips.

But it would make little sense for Apple to release a new device—especially a device that might cannibalize iPhone and iPod sales—if it’s not going to break the mold. The idealistic view of Apple’s consumer-product strategy is that it needs to shatter consumers’ expectations with every new device in its lineup. The skeptical view is that Apple, being a hardware company, needs to keep inventing new categories to make up for the declining profit margins of its older ones. In either view, Apple loses by rushing a product to market that bears little functional difference from the unimpressive Samsung Galaxy Gear. Consumers didn’t storm retailers’ doors to buy the Galaxy Gear, despite the market-leading penetration of the Android platform. And they won’t camp out in line to buy an iWatch that’s little more than a Nike FuelBand running iPhone software.

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