Why the iWatch May Be More Beneficial to the Industry Than Previously Thought

The iWatch is coming this October—we think.

Apple, as is its wont, hasn’t confirmed it’s working on any wearable device, never mind a high-tech timepiece that will be called an iWatch. But given the parade of official-seeming leaks, as well as its recent notable hire from a watch company, it will now be a surprise if there isn’t one.

All of which has sparked lots of tea-leaf reading. While we can’t do more than speculate at this point, I’ve rounded up some of the more intriguing informed guesses about the device, to look at its possible functionality, design, and distribution—and of course, the big question: How will it affect the traditional watch business?  

First, what might it be able to do? Current smartwatches mostly let you access and/or control your smartphone from your wrist. But you still need the other device nearby. That is limiting. For smartwatches to really take off, they will have to do things that phones can’t. 

Apple could probably introduce a smartwatch like those out in the market, add a bell and whistle or two, and sell several truckloads-full. But the iWatch is looking like a far more ambitious device, with Apple eager to hit it out of the park once again. Just as the iPhone won people over by being an all-inclusive phone, camera, web browser, and iPod, the iWatch may be a lot of gadgets in one.

Take this fascinating blog post by futurist Tim Bajarin, who predicts the iWatch will include applications for what he calls “Mobile ID”:

Someone who I believe has a good sense of Apple’s thinking about wearables told me some months ago that if I wanted to understand part of Apple’s wearable strategy I needed to go to Disney World [and check] out the ID band technology Disney is using.

And so he went. Before their vacation, he and his family received the new high-tech Disney wrist band, with their credit card info stored inside. When they ate at the park, they produced their wrist band, entered a PIN, and the food was charged to their card. No wallet needed! They signed up for rides with the band, entered the park with it, and used it to unlock their hotel room.

Bottom line is these bands were ultra convenient and worked flawlessly… After using the Disney band for seven days and seeing its incredible functionality, Apple has to be crazy not to make this part of any of their wearables…

Imagine going into a Starbucks and just touching your iWatch or iBand to the terminal, entering a PIN number and it is charged to your Apple account. Or to enter your house, you just touch the Apple wearable and enter a PIN number and you are in.  

Most of this can now be done with a phone, he admits, but having these features on a wristband (or wristwatch) would not only be more convenient, but possibly more secure, if they are synced with Apple’s fingerprint reader. Remember, this is a company that already has 800 million credit cards on file through iTunes. Not many others can say that.

And yet that might just be the beginning. Bajaran and others think the iWatch could serve as a possibly voice-controlled remote for the “Internet of things”—wired devices for the home. And in fact, Apple’s site now sells “smart” lightbulbs, thermometers, sensors, and cameras—all of which could be adjusted by an iWatch.

Finally, most commentators think that the device will include some kind of health component, given the most successful “wearable” out there is Nike’s FuelBand, which tracks a user’s movement. Nike’s CEO has said that the newest iteration of FuelBand will involve Apple, and it’s notably decided to move into software as opposed to hardware. Meanwhile, Apple has also hired a variety of people with medical or fitness backgrounds, including a sleep expert, people who know fitness and body sensors, and the original FuelBand designers.

All of which points to a watch/device that will keep close tabs on what is going on in the wearer’s body, with that info possibly entered into Apple’s new HealthKit app. In a recent company profile, The New York Times said an iWatch “might monitor heart rate and other vital measures, thus improving health and limiting doctor visits.” That is not only intriguing, but whomever leaked that info is a damn good marketer, touting a benefit rather than just a feature. (When researching this post, I wondered if there was a smart device that could monitor a user’s temperature, possibly eliminating the need for thermometers. It turns out, there is, and it’s being marketed for tracking fertility.) 

The look: So if Apple can pull all this off, it would have a cool and useful device. But unlike phones, watches are worn, which makes them fashion accessories. Not everyone wants to don the same timepiece.

The smartwatches out on the market look like tech devices but not fashion pieces, and some complain the tech companies are all but ignoring female wearers. Which is why it’s notable that Apple is recruiting heavily from the fashion world; for instance, last year it hired the former CEO of Yves Saint Laurent. That may be a sign it’s looking to branch out beyond its standard sleek and minimalist design, says Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. He thinks, if a watch is introduced, users will be able to customize its band, face, and materials to create a variety of different loooks. In fact, Dawson thinks the company might not just introduce a wrist-device, but other types of devices that can hang from a person’s neck or clothes.

The distribution: The hiring of a top TAG Heuer sales exec is possibly the most surprising move so far, suggesting that Apple may look outside its traditional distribution channel into stores that sell, well, TAG Heuers. (In other words, the kind of stores that read JCK.) 

TAG sales director Patrick Pruniaux’s defection signals Apple is “thinking in a rather different way about the retail channels for their new products,” Dawson says. “It’s quite likely they’ll look to sell their wearable devices in places that have traditionally sold jewelry or other fashion items rather than just consumer electronics.”

And in a way, this makes sense. If the iWatch becomes a hit, big-name watch brands may introduce their own versions—there might be a Rolex smartwatch, Patek Philippe smartwatch, etc. Jewelers, given their traditional ties to those brands, would be natural channels to sell them. Apple might not want to be shut out of that network, figuring if you want to sell watches, go where the watch buyers are. It’s also possible that Apple might be considering a link-up with an established watch brand that could be sold in high-end stores—although Dawson doesn’t think Apple will introduce a truly TAG-level product. “Apple always charges a premium,” he says, “but it’s affordable luxury rather than real luxury.”

And finally, there is the question the industry has been wondering: How will this affect the traditional watch biz?

Cell phones made timepieces redundant but not obsolete, as fans still wore them for fashion and status. That’s why some argue these gizmos are no threat to traditional watches, as both products fulfill different needs. (Of course, certain gadgets are about status and fashion, too.) 

But what if smartwatches become “must-haves,” the way smartphones have become? That could lead to two possible futures. In the first, the big watchmakers introduce their own smart-devices with their standard flourishes, and the non-smartwatch business becomes all but extinct except for hard-core collectors. The second outcome is that watch aficionados don’t shed their traditional models but sport two devices. One Apple fan told me: “Personally I would wear both. I would like a timepiece, especially if it’s a classic design, but I would wear my iWatch on the other wrist. Maybe I’m just weird, or a tech-head.”

People wearing two watches? Jewelers stocking Apple products? We may be venturing into a strange and different future. October could turn into a very interesting month.

JCK News Director