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.

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.

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.

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.