Every day, another rumour about upcoming Apple products. This time (no pun) it's the "iWatch" -- potentially a more deliberate foray into wearable computing than just slapping a iPad Nano on your wrist.
But Twitter is very down on the idea -- I've yet to find anyone who's said they'll even consider buying one. What there's missing though is a appreciation of Apple's ability to behave more like a fashion label than a technology company. If they do bring out an iWatch, I'll buy one, you'll buy one -- in fact, we'll all buy one. Because as a society, that's how our deal with Apple works.
The conversations that I've observed and partaken in on Twitter about an iWatch tend to focus on the fact that no one wears watches anymore.
For what it's worth, I actually don't think an iWatch is going to happen. Wearable computing is something that technologists want to happen, but I've yet to be convinced. I also think that in Apple's labs there are probably a bazillion weird products that never see the light of day.
I think there are two things directly wrong with the iWatch proposition. The first thing is that the people who look after Apple's brand are not going to want you to stop looking at your iPhone and start looking at your iWatch. Remember that over the past dozen or so years Apple behaves more Louis Vuitton and Prada than Microsoft or Samsung. Apple very much wants you to see them using their products. Imagine you are on public transport going to work. What Apple wants is for you to be sitting there with your white earbuds in (so that everyone knows you're listening to music on an iDevice), and if you want to check you email they want you to pull out your iPhone use it, smile and obviously enjoy it. The iWatch breaks that model. You'd be sitting there on the train, smooth up the cuff of your jacket/coat, and glance at the watch. You'd get the information that you need, but Apple would not get the brand recognition that they need.
This is just one possible problem with the iWatch. The other problem is that whatever you can think of, or whatever I can think of, is going to be way too pedestrian and obvious to Apple. The whole point of the way that Apple innovates products is that it does stuff that ordinary people cannot think of. As technologists we think about a wearable smartwatch and we think of something like Pebble. If Apple does a watch, it will be absolutely nothing like that. By definition, because I am an ordinary person like you, there's no point in me musing about what an iWatch might actually be.
A really good book on Apple's behaviour is Digital Wars by Charles Arthur. What I also like about is that it's full of "oh, I didn't realise that!" moments. (The story within the book is also told in a genuinely gripping way, and that makes it a great read.) A pertinent "Oh!" moment that I learnt from his book is that I thought the iPod was something that just "happened" within Apple -- i.e. although the idea of portable music was obvious actually making the iPod and the iTunes ecosystem was a far colder and more calculated move than this. Jobs and his team intentionally looked for a market area that could be exploited, but importantly one that was poorly served by the market, yet had the capacity to power a global trend through application of marketing more often seen from fashion companies than technology companies.
This basic operation is what Apple does. They do not "throw their hat into the ring" with others, what they always do is make a new ring, put their hat in first, and then extract as much money as possible. The tactic of avoiding going toe-to-toe with competitors means they have to -- aha -- "think different".
What made the iPod work was not that it was a particularly innovative idea, but that Jobs and Apple were able to take a fashion that had died out, reinvent it, own it, and then profit from it. When I was a kid everyone had Walkmans. I remember being at school and spending most of what we called "playtime", but which I understand in the US is called "recess", comparing Walkmans. I had a pretty rubbish Walkman, and I still remember being trounced on a daily basis in an endless game of Walkman Top Trumps by friends who had auto-reverse, Dolby B and C, a metal tape selector switch and so on. If I wanted to play the other side of a cassette, I had to take it out and turn it over.
And then one day, Walkmans were gone -- their demise seemingly tied to the shift from the cassette tape to the CD. CD Walkmans offered a different utility to their tape-based forebears, and this seemed to kill off the fashion. But the psychological attraction of the Walkman -- being able to be out in a public space but actually enveloped in your own private aural landscape -- still worked. Apple managed to make the Walkman fashionable again, with straplines of "10,000 songs in your pocket" and the silhouetted dancers in their famous ads. In those ads the iPod unit itself is shown, but more important is the white earbuds. This was the hook -- the global trend that Apple built was that everyone wanted the practical ability to listen to their music when they were out and about, but that everyone wanted to be seen with those earbuds.
If you were a company Samsung, it's relatively easy to imagine that you could create a wearable computing product like a watch and make it successful within one geographic/demographic market cross-section.
If Apple were to make an iWatch, I suspect it will probably be quite a basic idea, but done in a way that will create a global trend. Not being the sort of product development and marketing genius that works in the upper echelons of Apple's management I have no idea what that could be.
But if anyone can make us all go back to wearing watches, it'll be Apple, just like they made us all wear Walkmans again.
What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.
Image credit: Wikimedia