In the weeks leading up to Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, the big event taking place this week in San Francisco, the question I kept getting was whether Apple would unveil a smartwatch, a device popularly dubbed the “iWatch.”
My take: I didn’t think it was coming. And sure enough, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrapped up a two-hour keynote Monday morning without breathing a word about a wrist-worn device.
See also: What Apple Didn’t Announce At WWDC 2014
Apple will likely take some knocks for this omission. Samsung is on to the second generation of its Gear smartwatches. Google, Motorola, Microsoft, Qualcomm, and Intel have devices in the works or hardware and software meant to help others build them. And a tiny startup, Pebble, is defying the odds in a field dominated by such giants by building a profitable smartwatch business.
Dropping Hints For Developers
If Apple was going to unveil a smartwatch—even later this year—WWDC would have been the place for it to set the stage. Developers need time to build apps, particularly for a brand-new device with a different size of screen, new interfaces, and new challenges like preserving battery life and optimizing wireless connections. At the very least, Apple would have had to preview some software features that hinted at such developments.
Google is doing exactly that with its upcoming Android Wear software for smartwatches, about which we expect to hear a lot at its upcoming I/O conference at the end of June. So far, we haven’t seen any such hints by Apple.
Yet there are persistent reports that Apple is hiring experts who might help it build a wearable device. Other companies are making moves in preparation for the potential launch of an iWatch: Rumors about Apple entering the market may have played a part in Nike’s decision to abandon its FuelBand activity tracker. (I’d argue that Nike’s own difficulties in building hardware had more to do with that decision, though.)
The only glimmer that Apple might want to accommodate hardware that lives on your wrist and measures your body’s vital signals is the introduction of HealthKit. a feature within iOS 8, Apple’s forthcoming version of its mobile software for iPhones and iPads. But as described by Apple, HealthKit is underwhelming, promising to connect together, say, your fitness and nutrition apps. Those apps already talk to each other today, through application programming interfaces that aren’t specific to a single mobile operating system.
Perhaps HealthKit could help store and share the information collected by an iWatch, but it could just as easily do so for other wearable devices. Through its introduction, Apple could observe the market and determine the right time to introduce its own hardware.
Don’t Count Out An iWatch
Apple is known for working on devices for years, waiting to bring them onto the market when there’s the perfect confluence of component prices, user interfaces, and consumer acceptance. Apple started work on a tablet computer before it began the iPhone project, for example—and then eventually introduced it as the iPad, leaning heavily on what it had learned from its smartphone.
“Apple will not release something until they’ve really nailed it,” MyFitnessPal CEO Mike Lee tells me. “That’s all it means.”
MyFitnessPal developed an app for Samsung’s original Gear smartwatch, and is considering other wearable platforms. Lee thinks that Apple’s moves so far, including today’s HealthKit announcement, strongly suggest they’re working on something.
“I just don’t think they’re going to launch something until it’s insanely great,” Lee says, playing on Apple cofounder Steve Jobs’s much-loved description of Apple products.
The wearable industry is not at an insanely great place yet. While fitness-oriented smartwatches are constantly improving, the optical heart-rate technology they depend on is very much a work in progress. Their ability to capture and share other biological signals, or biosignals, like temperature and perspiration, aren’t particularly standardized or well understood. And trackers that look at very simple measures of activity and rest, like steps walked or hours slept, have limited usefulness.
Notification-oriented smartwatches, like the Pebble or Qualcomm’s Toq, help us deal with a deluge of mobile alerts, but it’s questionable how much value they add for all but the most digitally overwhelmed. The smartphone, for all its flaws, is a pretty good wearable device.
An iWatch needs to be something that wraps together several functions into one: displaying notifications, monitoring biosignals, and acting as a remote control for other devices. It may just be that the underlying technology—chips, screens, batteries, and software—isn’t ready to deliver on that promise. When it is, I’d expect Apple to come out with something useful. Heck, I might even get over my aversion to wrist computers and try one on.