Why the Apple iWatch Will Have These 6 Killer Features

iwatchconcept

We learned this week that Google, Samsung and LG are all planning smartwatches. 

Sony, Pebble, Cookoo, I’m Smart, MetaWatch and Martian already have pretty sophisticated smartwatches available, all of which interoperate with the iPhone.

You can be sure that 100 Chinese companies will make inexpensive smartwatches that support either the iPhone or Android or both.

And, of course, Apple is rumored to be working on a curved-glass “iWatch.”

Here’s why I believe Apple’s smartwatch will have a market advantage.

(Dear critic: I know you’re tempted to slam this column because I’m predicting that a product that doesn’t exist will beat other products that don’t exist. Please note, however, that all six features are based very solidly on what Apple has and does right now in real life and is not based on pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.) 

Custom Haptics

I believe the usage model for smartwatches will be very different from smartphones.

Traditionally, wristwatches were used for telling the time — a one-second interaction. I think smartwatches will also favor one-second interactions, and lots of them.

Someone sends you a text or posts a picture on Facebook, you’ll get calendar meeting alerts and other standard types of incoming information, and they will flash on the watch.

A future, more pre-emptive and proactive Siri will nudge you about all kinds of random things: “You’re near the cleaners — pick up your laundry,” or “Do you want me to remind Steve about your meeting?” I expect us active users to be glancing at our iWatches 10 times an hour during the day to keep up on one-second messages of all kinds.

It makes sense that the iWatch will gently interrupt you constantly. But how?

Beeps are annoying and public. I believe haptics will be the main way that the iWatch will say, in effect: “Hey, look!”

Haptics are the buzzes and rumbles of physical motion you feel when your phone is on vibrate or what you feel in the controller when you play Call of Duty on Xbox and someone tosses a grenade into your bunker.

Apple has been quietly integrating custom haptics into the iPhone user interface for years. The feature lets you tap out your own pattern of vibrations, then assign a unique, custom pattern for each contact, if you choose.

In iOS 5, custom haptics was an “Accessibility” feature. In iOS 6, Apple baked it directly into the Contacts app. (Open any contact, tap Edit, tap “vibration,” scroll down and tape “Create New Vibration” under Custom.)

Hardly anyone uses this feature, and why would they? With a phone, you never really know if you’ll “feel” the buzzing. And even if you can feel some buzzing, an iPhone in your pocket isn’t solidly connected enough to your skin for you to recognize subtle custom vibrations.

But with a wristwatch, which is tightly bound to your wrist and in direct contact with your skin, you will always feel haptics.

I believe Apple will enable custom haptics for the iWatch. You’ll be able to set up custom vibration patterns for specific people and/or specific types of information, so you won’t even need to look at the watch to get some kinds of messages.

You can also be given enough information by buzzing to make a decision even to look at the watch or not look. For example, you’ll have a specific pattern of buzzes for incoming text messages and another pattern when someone in your “Close Friends” group on Facebook posts a status update. If you’re in a meeting with your boss, you might choose to check the iWatch to see the incoming text, but ignore the status update.

Send To

The boundaries between devices are breaking down. If you have other Apple hardware, such as an iPhone, iPad, MacBook Pro, iMac or Apple TV, you’ll be able to see incoming stuff, then quickly toss it over to another nearby device with a simple command. For example, someone may post a picture on Facebook. You’ll see it thumbnail size on the iWatch, and with a voice command instantly put it up on your iMac or TV.

This will be a market advantage only to users who also have other Apple products, but which is a potential market of hundreds of millions of people.

iTunes

Apple has sold a semi-smart watch before. It was called the iPod nano, and the wristband was sold separately by third-party companies in Apple Stores and elsewhere. (Apple did make available custom apps and watch faces, including a Mickey Mouse watch face.)

Note that I say that was a semi-smart watch because while it ran apps, it didn’t have a third-party app ecosystem or connect to the Internet.

In any event, the nano wristwatch was primarily a content consumption device. You plugged your Apple earbuds into it and listened to your iTunes music.

I believe Apple’s future iWatch will take it a step further, and enable you to tap into iTunes wirelessly, and listen wirelessly via Bluetooth earbuds. I believe this because Apple is quietly obsessed with Bluetooth 4.0. The iPhone was the first phone ever to get the new technology, and every Apple product since last year ships with Bluetooth 4.0 support.

You’ll be able to listen to your music, podcasts, audiobooks and iTunes U lectures. After synching with iTunes, you’ll be able to do this at the gym or while running when you don’t have your iPhone with you.

Exclusive Nike Support

Apple has a “special relationship” with Nike, especially when it comes to the wrist. The nano “wristwatch” had a Nike app. Apple CEO Tim Cook is on the Nike board of directors. And Cook also wears a Nike FuelBand wristwatch, presumably every day.

It’s also well known that people use Apple products for fitness more than any other brand of gadget by far. People buy third-party accessories to lash iPhones and iPods to their arms and other appendages, and listen to music, etc., while running, working out, hiking or whatever. They also use third-party fitness apps and accessories to monitor performance.

The wrist will be the perfect location for a fitness computer, and Apple is likely to give Nike a prominent place in the pantheon of default apps on the device, as well as a head start on accessories. In exchange, Nike is likely to remain faithful and exclusive to Apple.

Notification Center

If the Notification Center is appealing and useful on iOS and OS X it will be massively so on the iWatch.

A rational feature would be for the iWatch Notification Center to replace, rather than duplicate, iOS and OS X notifications. By simply detecting the presence of an iWatch connected via Bluetooth, Notification Center messages would appear on the watch instead of the other device, keeping those screens free from clutter and interruptions.

Female Friendliness

The single most killer feature of the iWatch from a market dominance point of view may be female friendliness.

No, I’m not being sexist. The undeniable fact is that women overwhelmingly choose smaller, thinner and lighter wristwatches than those normally chosen by men.

I predict that most of the smartwatches coming out from Google, Samsung, LG and others will be somewhat like the current generation in their bulkiness.

However, Apple’s market savvy and two-part obsessions with both having at launch the thinnest device in every category (iPhone 5, MacBook Air, iMac, etc.) plus Apple’s obsession with curved glass (Steve Jobs said Apple’s new “spaceship” headquarters will not have a single pane of flat glass) — not to mention Apple’s affinity for the Nike FuelBand, which is small, narrow, light, curved and thin — will result in Apple cornering the market for women who choose to wear smartwatches in the first two or three years after they ship.

It’s time for the smartwatch revolution. And Apple happens to be ideally positioned to rule this fledgling market like they did the touch tablet market. And they’ll do it with these 6 killer features.

Product concept image courtesy of Esben Oxholm

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  • Poohpa

    Mike… very good article about the possibilities for the iWatch… since we are in the realm of speculation… how about including Near Field Communication (NFC) as a possibility? NFC would yield untold possibilities with POS Security, event ticketing and passes, auto access, etc.

  • Willie Rosario

    Sounds good. I wonder what effect Google Glass would have on this market, since it seems they would possibly be very close in features. ???

  • Steven Quan

    I think it’s funny how the wrist watch is making a come back. I stopped wearing watches after wearing them religiously for a long time in the 80′s and 90′s because I had a smart phone and/or cell phone to tell me the time.

    I look at the 80′s and 90′s and I remember taking bus to school and lots of people wearing the big clumsy headphones. Then iPod happened and everyone started wearing small white colored earbuds and suddenly it was fashionable, nobody wore big clumsy headphones. Fast forward to 2013 and everyone is wearing big clumsy headphones again, Beats by Dre, RZA, and others.

    This is good and bad news for Microsoft. It’s good news because since Apple is making a smart watch it means Microsoft will be making one in the future since they have no ideas of their own and simply follow the leader. The bad news is, Microsoft’s watch will likely come 3 years too late, and it will be another abysmal failure just like all their other mobile offerings that were created out of response to Apple’s efforts (see Zune, Kin, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone, Surface RT, Surface Pro, etc).

  • Steven Quan

    I’m a little dubious as to the viability of this smart watch. What’s the point of having a smart device on your wrist when you already have one in your pocket? As if you would feel haptic feedback on your wrist but you wouldn’t feel it on your leg? What could an iWatch tell you that your iPhone couldn’t?

    I would be surprised if Apple wasted their time on such a device. They have been making the progression from small simple device (iPod) to larger more sophisticated device (iPhone) to even bigger and equally sophisticated device (iPad). Why would they go backwards now?

    I think it will be a big fail, nobody is buying the Sony Smart Watch for Android because there isn’t a need for it and they don’t have any big competition either. I would find it hard to believe Apple would sell gazillions of these devices and they pretty much need to, to justify it since that’s how they make their money. iPhones, yes I can understand selling gazillions of these because it does everything, iPads, I can see that, iWatch, absolutely not.

    I can see enterprises buying iPads by the gazillions like many schools have already done because there are tons of good educational apps and books you can use on it. What enterprise will drop money on a gazillion smart watches? Lowe’s (the hardware store) uses iPhones to check store inventory. I can see businesses using iPhone but a smart watch with such a limited tiny screen? Not really.

    It’s too bad Jobs is gone. There’s nobody in the company to stand up and say “this is a really stupid idea”.

  • joewaylo

    I would prefer iGlasses versus iWatches

  • marioyohanes

    Nice article Mike.

    However, I always hate the fact there is no single post about iWatch and forgot to correlate its fashion culture. Yes you have smartphone to tell you time in better manner (auto region detection etc), but watches are more of fashion accs since like forever…

    That’s why I think with Apple being premium brand who can easily blending itself with top designer brands, iWatch will definitely be something Cartier would be able to contribute with its design, or any other brand for that matter. I just don’t see non geeky people will buy iWatch just because it’s apple or Google or Samsung if the watch looks the same, digitally no personal and high art touches.

  • JorgenOlsson

    Would love to have the iWatch identify me on my iPhone, iPad and Mac.

  • AdamD

    Give the people something they didn’t know they needed. An environmental and body monitoring system on your wrist. A personal 24/7 human body data logger would be fantastic for tracking pattern changes in heart rate, body temp, environmental temp, sleep patterns etc. I understand this is being done for physical workouts but what if they could loose the bra strap and log data 24/7.Imagine an employee having a stress level graph showing the affects a specific management change had on their health graphs. Or the reverse, an entire workforce with employer remotely monitored health conditions, this could be implemented in the Chinese factories to detect working hours that breach regulations. I can see Siri saying “excuse me Adam, you are currently below your required sleep hours to be performing at maximum capacity”. Such a watch needs to look amazing. I cant see Jonhy Ive rocking an ipod nano on his wrist, he would be wearing a tag…so expect the iwatch to blow current fashion out of the water, something that would make even Tony Stark proud to wear.

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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