What wearable tech's past says about Apple's iWatch

What wearable tech's past says about Apple's iWatch

Summary: Wearable tech is nothing new. As anticipation builds - and rumors fly - over Apple's hypothetical iWatch, wearable tech's successes show us what Apple is targeting.

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TOPICS: Storage, Apple
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Man, the toolmaker, has been wearing technology for tens of thousands of years. Tanning, weaving, dyeing, and tattooing are all ancient "wearable" technologies.

Successful modern wearable technologies include:

  • Eyeglasses 
  • Hearing aids 
  • Watches: Pocket to wrist 
  • Headphones/headsets 
  • Prosthetics 
  • Implants: pacemakers, stents, joints 
  • Keys and keychain gadgets: tools, games, flashlights

And lately, some fitness monitors.

These widely adopted wearables give the outlines of what people will and will not put up with, as well as the reasons they choose to do so.

Health and sensory augmentation are the two biggest motivators. Organization (watches) and convenience (headsets and keychain gadgets) are also popular.

With many, the status of the device is also important. Eyeglass frames range from $30 to over $800, and any will hold lenses in front of your eyes.

And don't forget watches. The average watch worldwide sells for $5. But you can spend $20,000 or more on one that is no more accurate.

The Apple method

If you look at the iPhone, what was original? The size, shape, touchscreen, and apps were all on the Palm Pilot. Color screens were common on feature phones. Music players were common.

What Apple did differently was an intuitive user interface, sensors for light, orientation and proximity, some well-done mobile apps, and the care with which the whole product was put together. It was the iPhone's level of integration and ease of use, years of work by smart designers, which made it a worldwide phenomenon.

Jony Ive's design team has no doubt studied the parameters of successful wearable tech in great depth, augmented by rigorous testing. They've also invested in advanced sensor technology, software to use it, and new fabrication techniques — liquid metal, sapphire — to build something that is not only functional but, equally important, desirable.

The challenges

Wrist-based products are nothing new. But the most successful have been single-function — time of day — because of real estate limitations (consider the geeky Casio G-Shock).

However limited a wristlet's visual bandwidth may be, it is well positioned to monitor key vital signs, sleep and activity. The killer app offers data that people — for example, athletes and the chronically at risk (diabetics and hypertensives) — need or want. The rest depends on what sensors Apple is able to embed in the unit.

The Storage Bits take

History tells us that a wrist device that give us visual information isn't likely to be successful. We read email on phones, not wrists.

Most wearable technology to date has either extended our senses, improved our communications, and/or functioned as a social status indicator, like jewelry. Apple will be shooting to fulfill all three.

As with the iPhone, they'll get some things very right and others not. But Apple is in this effort for the long haul.

Given the fact that America spends an absurd amount of money for mediocre health outcomes, Apple has a huge opportunity to improve our dysfunctional health care. Let's hope they have as big effect on health as they have on music and telecoms.

Comments welcome, of course. What would you most like the iWatch to do for your health?

Topics: Storage, Apple

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7 comments
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  • Typical apple.....but genius at the same time

    Let all competitors scramble over a tiny interested market share, then take all the stuff that folk like, add some eye candy (no clunky designs here eh?) and suddenly you invented the thing and become the best thing since sliced bread....they have NEVER brought a new product to market without someone else doing it first....
    Carl White
    • Making something not suck

      takes more than a little genius. Which is why most things suck.
      baggins_z
    • It is genius. Design genius.

      Apple never invents new technology. They make existing technology usable and beautiful. They buy/license/borrow technologies from other companies and drastically upgrade the look and feel to create techno lust. Subsequently, those original tech companies alter their designs to mimic the beautiful Apple designs. The Samsung S5, Nokias, and HTC One wouldn't be so attractive if Apple hadn't raised the bar on phone design with the iPhone.

      If you look specifically at what Apple does best, they aren't really a cutting edge technology company. Instead, they are the most successful industrial design firm in the world. They make the mundane into something sleek, beautiful, and easy to use. Every device they've introduced (post Apple 1) was designed to look and feel better than anything else on the market. They don't innovate in any other area other than design.

      With that said, I still don't see what they could possibly do to make people want to start wearing watches again. No matter how useful and beautiful they make it, most people moved past wearing watches a decade ago.
      BillDem
  • The real equivilence

    Those are hardly comparable applications. The similar products would be forgotten ones like the calculator watch or the PDA watch with your phone book in it.
    Buster Friendly
  • There's some fundamental errors ...

    in this piece of journalism.

    For example "We read email on phones, not wrists.". That is only true of today. Only a few years ago "We read email on PC's, not phones." and I remember vividly thinking to myself "a phone with a camera? I already have a camera!".

    Use-cases change, and what seems logical to us today will not tomorrow.

    Yes, Apple did nothing new with the first iPhone. It had all already been done by others, but what apple did was pull it all together. Apple did nothing new with the iPad, they just took an iPhone and made it ... bigger.

    I've no issue with this approach, I'm sure most others agree. I DO take issue with the fact that Apple thinks it can assume ownership of all this and every other company who dares to do similar.

    SmartWatches (forget iWatch - they're already a year late to the party) will do well for a few years I'm sure - much in the same way that SmartPhones have. What will be next, SmartPens, SmartTeeth, WetLinks? Who knows!

    But I bet you Apple will try to patent it :-P
    5haggi
  • If Microsoft does come up with a crossplatform

    watch with health tracking information, then they may actually beat Apple in this realm, as people use more than just Apple products world wide.
    grayknight
  • And still... *yawn*

    ...wearable tech as it is modernly defined, is still so "niche" that the only people that seem to cotton to it are either attention-seekers or those that have an affinity for complicating jogs.

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    TyRMJTech