Visiting Apple's feedback form immediately after Apple's fall event introducing new iPods has been an annual ritual for me the last few years. I've been telling Apple about the product I wish they would have released but didn't. The technology necessary to make this product didn't actually exist yet but I wanted to make sure Apple was aware of the market demand. The product I asked for was something like an iPod nano with some of the features of an iPhone. I have asked Apple for this product because it would solve a very specific problem and serve a specific purpose much better than any existing product in Apple's lineup. This is exactly what Apple is looking for when designing a new product.
My problem is pretty simple. There are some apps that I would really love to have available at times when carrying a device as big as an iPhone is inconvenient at best. The foremost example of such a situation is when I am working out. There are many great fitness and music apps but no good place to put the iPhone. I do not like to wear clothes with pockets when I am working out. Even if the iPhone did fit in a pocket it is too large for many fitness activities and gets in the way. I have tried alternatives like waist clips and arm bands. These are not great either. The iPhone is just plain inconvenient when I'm working out.
The current iPod nano avoids these problems but asks me to sacrifice my apps. It provides Nike+ support and lets me listen to music from my iTunes library or to the radio but this is simply not enough. I've tried Nike+. It is a bad solution compared to GPS fitness apps like Runmeter (which is a really great app, by the way). GPS fitness apps are simply much more accurate. They also provide features that would never exist without a 3rd party ecosystem. For example, one of my favorite features in Runmeter is the very customizable audio cues it provides while I am running.
The problem only begins here. What if I'm not doing a cardio exercise where metrics are straightforward (i.e. duration and speed)? No Apple (or Apple + Nike) solution is ever going to cover all of the wide variety of useful things apps can do in the gym.
Music is also a big problem for the iPod nano. It is no longer a safe assumption that people using Apple hardware primarily listen to their iTunes music library. Pandora, Spotify, Rdio and other music apps have built substantial followings. Any device focused on fitness must include access to popular 3rd party music apps.
All of this is great news for Apple. It is an opportunity to sell a new device to current customers by solving specific problems. Many multi-device Apple customers will have a reason to add yet another Apple device to their collection. Even better, this product is the natural evolution of an existing product (the iPod nano and associated watch band accessories) into the iOS ecosystem.
Apparently Apple has been listening. By now, everybody who follows Apple closely has heard rumors about Apple's coming wearable device, rumored to be called iWatch. There are indications that the iWatch is going to be focused on fitness and that several Apple executives have been wearing Nike Fuel Band in order to better understand the wearable fitness device category. This is clearly the right focus and the best way for Apple to sell a wearable computing product to mainstream consumers for Apple in the near future. This device will solve a very real (albeit first world1) problem for app-loving fitness buffs and will become a huge hit prodcut for Apple.
What features must the iWatch have in order to be successful? Here are my thoughts.
I expect the hardware to be highly optimized. The cost and energy budgets will go to the necessary sensors and radios first, CPU / GPU performance last.
- A camera is extremely unlikely. Space will be extremely limited and it is not important for fitenss uses.
- An accelerometer is a no-brainer as even the iPod nano includes one.
- Bluetooth is very likely mostly because 3rd party biometric sensors use it (and the current iPod nano supports these). If Apple were able to incorporate biometric sensors such as a heart rate monitor directly into the device they may be able to get by without Bluetooth.
- GPS fitness apps are very popular making GPS an inevitable feature in time. I think GPS is extremely likely if it is possible to have GPS and decent battery life in a device this small with current battery technology.
- Wifi seems almost certain. Fitness apps will be collecting data we will want available elsewhere and will need a network connection to sync that data.
- Cellular seems questionable. A cellular radio would be necessary to support streaming music apps in outdoor fitness activities where no wifi is available. Mapping and routing would also be very useful during some outdoor fitness activities. I believe enough people would be willing to pay the cellular premium to make it worth offering if it can be done within the size and power budgets of the device. The most likely scenario is that Apple saves cellular for a future version of the device, making it available as a premium SKU at that time.
- Additional biometric sensors are possible, and based on the rumors seem somewhat likely. 9to5Mac references sources stating that some of the Authentec team is working on iWatch. This may be true, however they are probably working on new health and fitness related biometric sensors rather than working to include the fingerprint recognition technology in iWatch. I expect any surprises or innovations that really set the iWatch apart to come in this area.
The obvious assumption many are making is that the iWatch will run iOS2 and will have an App Store open to all developers. I believe this is reasonably likely, especially in the long run. At the same time I do not think it is absolutely necessary for a successful initial product. What I believe is most critical is reasonable selection of popular fitness and music apps. Porting these apps to the device must be reasonable so it very likely that the device will indeed be running a version of iOS.
It would not surprise me if the device is limited to high profile partner apps and no App Store at launch, similar to Apple TV. This would allow the technology to mature a bit and the market to become more clear before Apple commits to an external SDK. Choosing partners would not be too difficult as there are some clear leaders in the relevant genres. The bigger concern would be developer complaints that this isn't fair. That hasn't stopped Apple from pursuing limited 3rd party support on Apple TV but that is a much different market. Regardless of which way Apple goes at launch, I do expect a full SDK and App Store to appear within a year or two.
These are interesting and important topics to think about but I think the biggest software opportunity lies elsewhere. In the relevant scenarios where the iPhone has challenges the problem is not just with the size of the device, but also the fact that we often want our hands free. When I am running I do not want to interact with a touch screen.
There have been many times when I was running and I wished I could ask run meter for my current stats without having to interact with or look at a screen. This is exactly the kind of situation where Siri is the perfect solution. Can Apple find a way to put Siri into a wearable device that may not have a network connection available? Frankly, I don't know if this is possible and even hesitate to mention the idea3. But of course a guy can dream, and sooner or later this will be a reality.
The iWatch (if that is indeed the name Apple gives this product) will focus on health and fitness by collecting useful data from a variety of sensors, providing guidance through apps while we exercise (often via audio feedback) and entertaining us with music (or video) during our workout4. It will do all of this while remaining unobtrusive no matter how active we are. Of course iWatch will do many other things as well but none will receive the same degree of attention.
iWatch will be panned for what it lacks by many pundits when it is announced later this year, or more likely sometime next year. Many will say it's just a 2-inch iPod touch. Despite these critics I believe Apple will have produced another massively successful product by focusing on real problems and showing a willingess to make tradeoffs. In the end it will simply do a better job at some things (especially health and fitness) than any other product in Apple's lineup and in the process it will define a new category of digital consumer devices.5
- First world problems are problems of the very fortunate and sometimes seem trivial. Nevertheless, solving them is often a very good business to be in.
- While most believe this will be a standalone device, some have speculated it may be an iPhone accessory, allowing us to interact with an iPhone while it remains in our pocket. This speculation is likely due to the success of Pebble in the tech world. Apple will never create a product like this. A wearable computing device can deliver the most obvious value in scenarios where a smartphone is too large or inconvenient.
- Apple may be working on some local, offline Siri features. This technology would obviously be a prerequsite to the scenarios I mention.
- Of course iWatch will also do many other things. It may even come to have more important uses than health and fitness over time. However, health and fitness is the most obvious problem for a wearable device to solve and the best go-to-market strategy. It will be the lens through which Apple decides what technologies shape their wearable iOS device.
- iWatch will not be as profitable as iPhone or iPad. This is simply not possible for lower cost product that will usually be the second or third or fourth device for a user. It will, however, be as succssful as such a product can be which is still extremely successful even for a company as large as Apple.