Why Apple Will Win The Battle For Your Wrist

At some point, Apple is widely expected to release a miniature computer for your wrist. Assuming the rumors pan out, you, dear geek, are going to hate whatever is released — because it's not going to do many of the things that you think such a device should do.

Your favorite tech blogs will reaffirm your skepticism by releasing scathing reports about how underwhelming Apple's newest gadget is, at least when compared against the hype they created about what Apple's newest gadget should have been. Apple will be doomed, yet again. Tim Cook's got to go! Cue the sad trombone.

Ignore all of that. An Apple watch, if it is released, is going to be a big deal. Here's why.

Fear Our Vapor!

In basketball, the mere presence of a strong defender is often enough to alter a shot and create a miss. In tech, the mere presence of a rumored Apple product is enough to alter a category and create a flurry of press releases.

No one knows what an Apple-branded watch will look like. No one knows what it'll do. We don't even know for sure that Apple is ever going to release a watch. At best, we're in "where there's smoke" territory based on ever-popular "industry sources" and a single leaked patent application.

Leading up to the release of the iPhone, similar rumors surfaced and, as usual, pundits and competitors scoffed. Here, for instance, is Palm CEO Ed Colligan scoffing his company into obsolescence:

We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone. PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.

Six years later, Apple's competitors rarely scoff, at least not as openly. Instead, they scurry to make reactionary (and premature) product announcements that exist primarily to counter a rumor mill that Apple largely ignores.

Here's Samsung, reacting:

"We’ve been preparing the watch product for so long,” Samsung Mobile executive vice president Lee Young Hee told Bloomberg. “We are preparing products for the future, and the watch is definitely one of them.”

For so long!

Samsung has to react, though. It's been stung by accusations (not to mention legal judgments) that its R&D department is based in Cupertino. Thus the rush to claim that a smartwatch is in the pipeline prior to any official Apple announcement: "We couldn't have copied Apple, we told you about our product over a year ago!"

Here's Microsoft, reacting:

Microsoft Corp. is working on designs for a touch-enabled watch device, executives at suppliers said, potentially joining rivals like Apple Inc. in working on a new class of computing products.

Microsoft also has to react. "Not reacting" is the only way to explain how they could have fallen so far behind in the mobile space and they can't afford to get left behind yet again. Steve Ballmer's got to go! Wah-waaaah.

Google's got a smart-watch patent, too:

A smart-watch can include a wristband, a base, and a flip up portion. The base can be coupled to the wristband and include a housing, a processor, a wireless transceiver, and a tactile user interface. The wireless transceiver can be configured to connect to a wireless network. The tactile user interface can be configured to provide interaction between a user and the smart-watch. The flip up portion can be displaceable between an open position exposing the base and a closed position concealing the base. Further, the flip up portion can include: a top display exposed when the flip up portion is in the closed position, and an inside display opposite the top display. The inside display can be concealed when the flip up portion is in the closed position and be exposed when the flip up portion is in the open position.

Google's clearly in a better position than Samsung and Microsoft (and Apple, for that matter) in that it's already demoing wearable computing. But Google Glass is far from a guaranteed winner — we may all be cross-eyed this time next year — and prepping a watch, even as a backup, seems like a smart way for the company to hedge its bets.

What A Coincidence

Now, raise your hand if you think it's a coincidence that we're just now learning about all these smartwatches just as rumors of an "iWatch" started to heat up. No takers?

The mere specter of an Apple watch — summoned by the ritualistic voodoo of rumors and speculation — spooked Apple's competitors into action. Clearly, they're not quite as cocky as they used to be. (Or, as in the case of Palm, as in business as they used to be.)

There's a lot of talk these days about Apple having died with Steve Jobs, but I sure don't see Google Glass spurring similarly reactionary competitive product announcements. By that standard, at least, Apple's in pretty good shape.

That said, Apple remains Apple. It'll release the watch it'll release, when it releases it. If, uh, it releases one at all. Which brings us back to why I think Apple is, in fact, going to launch a smartwatch.

First and foremost, a watch isn't much of a stretch for Apple from a product standpoint, especially if you're expecting a wrist-borne iPod rather than an offshoot of the iPhone or iPad.

IPod sales are declining, yes, but the brand remains iconic. It won't surprise me at all if Apple simply calls this thing an iPod Watch. (Consider that Apple used to sell a square iPod Nano that everyone treated like a watch.) Similar to the Apple TV, an iPod Watch could run an offshoot of iOS, but not full-fledged iPhone apps.

The Watch Built for Homer

Neither Apple nor Google seems likely to release a watch that looks anything like what we've seen in the paperwork they've filed. That doesn't mean there aren't clues in their patents to what they might one day ship.

Google's watch description sounds an awful lot like what it's now demoing as Google Glass. It's futuristic, it's full of gee-whiz wonderments and augmented reality, and it'll probably do your dishes for you — or maybe advertise local maid services as soon as it Big Brothers that you're washing your own dishes.

That pretty much sums up Google and, let's face it, most of Apple's competitors: "If nothing else, a device can always do more."

Would-be iPod killers had FM radios and Bluetooth music sharing and gigantic cup holders and anything else some consumer once said he'd like to have in a survey or on a web forum, once, somewhere. Would-be iPhone killers had hardware keyboards and 3D screens and styluses and a bunch of other junk no one wanted until, eventually, they just gave in and became "essentially iPhones" with an "all sizes and prices fits all" mentality.

But what about Apple?

The current landscape for smartwatches is, thus far, fairly niche-based: Athletes and, well, athletes wear them. Sometimes.

But look at us. We aren't athletes. We don't spend a lot of our time counting our steps and monitoring our heartbeats, so we're not going to buy a device that exists to do those things.

Pebble has seen some success with its Kickstarter campaign for a multi-purpose, e-paper smartwatch, but who knows if the company is equipped to compete over the longer term. More likely, its offering will serve as a proof-of-concept for the big guys.

That leaves a lot of wrist real-estate for Apple, especially given that most of us aren't even wearing dumb watches anymore. Who needs something that only tells the time, especially when our smartphones do that so well?

Glance and Go

Think about iOS notifications for a moment. (Yes, they suck hard. But that's a discussion for another day.) If the entire point of a notification is to increase efficiency by providing an opportunity to ignore the things that we'd rather ignore, why should we have to get our phone out to make that decision?

Wouldn't it be better to glance down at our wrist? To leave the phone in our pocket until we really need it?

More importantly, wouldn't Apple want us to glance at a device made by Apple, running software sold via Apple's App Store, and linked to services controlled by Apple?

This is the part where the geeks get indignant and demand that Apple release something that is more than just an accessory, but I don't see any reason to believe that Apple will (or needs to) introduce something more than that.

Tied to an iPhone, an iPad, and your Apple TV, a smartwatch adds value to Apple's existing hardware ecosystem and, most importantly, it won't exist as an "either/or" proposition for consumers.

We'll simply buy all of the above if we want the full Apple experience.

Apple's Extended Family

Consider that iPhone accessories alone are a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Even with the understanding that most of that money goes to the accessory makers, it's clear that Apple plays the accessory game better than just about any other company. Anyway, the mind-share that such exposure buys makes up for any lack of revenue.

When Apple introduced the second generation iPad, it also developed a magnet-based mechanism that paved the way for the Smart Cover and countless knock-offs that line store shelves today. With a watch, the strap is the case: Expect Apple to design (and patent) an easily removable "Smart Strap" that clicks on and off. Now imagine countless booths at next year's CES, lined with iPod Watch straps and accessories.

Software developers won't be left out: An SDK will be released and they'll rush to create added value widgets that extend the functionality of their iPhone and iPad apps.

Apple's watch may not transform us into latter-day Dick Tracys, but developers and accessory makers will stick with Apple and extend the brand in spite of all the crap they'll have to put up with along the way. Because they're going to follow the money.

Billions of dollars a year is a pretty easy trail to follow.

Apple Wins Again

In the end, Apple will release a product that looks great and works like it's supposed to, even if it's not exactly what we expect, or think we want, out of a smartwatch. And we'll buy it.

The peripheral market for accessories will quickly materialize, at which point the competition, left dumbfounded, will be forced to go back to the drawing board in an effort to mimic Apple's vision of wrist-based computing. In a few years, you'll either be wearing Apple's smart watch, or something remarkably similar to Apple's smart watch.

Not long after that, some anonymous commenter sporting a Samsung Galaxy W will feel clever and point out that Apple didn't really do anything all that revolutionary.

Just you watch.

Top image via a 2010 iWatch concept video by ADR Studio