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Tunnel Vision and the iWatch

Just this week, I read yet another uninformed piece suggesting that Apple and Samsung are barking up the wrong tree in trying to developing a smartwatch, or an iWatch if you will. Typical of many of the comments on the subject, the issues are being viewed in the context of existing products, not the potential. These comments also ignore Apple’s expertise, which is to make nascent or previously unsatisfied markets relevant.

In other words, they ignore the lessons of history.

Take the iPod. Before that product arrived in 2001, there were digital music players, all right. I reviewed some of them for ZDNet, but they pretty much went nowhere. If you used them, you’d know why. The interfaces were lousy, and download speeds were pathetic. Apple’s brilliance was to use FireWire for speedier throughput (later USB 2), to develop a user friendly interface and control system, and make it sync almost seamlessly with iTunes. This combination created a market that previously didn’t exist.

For the iPhone in 2007, yes there were smartphones, mostly in the BlackBerry mold sporting tiny physical keypads, which were in wide use by business professionals and power users. Although blasted by the critics for the inefficiencies of the virtual keyboard, the iPhone broke through and became a popular mainstream consumer gadget. The other companies took notice, and delivered their own imitations for better or worse. But only Samsung managed to gain any traction with its intended iPhone beater, the Galaxy S series.

Despite being touted by Microsoft for years as the next great thing, it took Apple to make tablets relevant with the iPad. Everything that came after, except perhaps the Surface tablet and those dreadful tablet/PC convertibles, owed something to Apple.

That takes us to the smartwatch. There has been a lot of speculation, unconfirmed as usual, that Apple is actively developing an iWatch, with some 100 engineers working on the project. That may seem a lot, although Apple has more than enough resources to fund loads of development efforts, but very few new products actually make it to the Apple Store. In turn, Samsung promises to release their own smartwatch, no doubt something that will be highly influenced by what they expect Apple to deliver.

But the situation with smartwatches almost harkens back to the early days of digital music players. Yes, there are such products, including the Pebble and I’m Watch, but they aren’t very smart. They are meant to serve as peripherals for existing smartphones and little more. Some may be useful for exercise, but you get the point. They are nothing unless you have a smartphone (or tablet) with which to pair via Bluetooth. No wonder few are impressed. Besides, they don’t sell very well.

To think Apple would play that game with their own concept of an iWatch is foolish. Why bother?

One possibility being ignored by most of those so-called tech or financial pundits is a fully-functioning standalone smartwatch. What I mean is a gadget that’s basically a limited-feature smartphone all by itself, without linking to any other gadget. You’ll be able to place and receive calls, and handle limited app functions, possibly including turn-by-turn navigation, the requisite exercise routines, and so forth and so on. Sure, using a number keypad to place phone calls may be a tad awkward on a tiny screen, but Siri would compensate. Indeed, accurate voice direction would be a prerequisite for making such a device work in the real world, and it would come with a Bluetooth mic/headset for added flexibility.

Certainly Dick Tracy never had to rely on a paired phone to use his wrist radio.

In the real world, putting all that stuff into a device the size of a watch may be difficult, though I suppose some of the parts would be placed in the wrist band, including, perhaps, the antenna. Having a much smaller display, and judicious selection of power efficient components, would make it possible to get decent battery life despite the size. A purchase price between $199 and $299, unlocked, might make the iWatch a contender as a cheap iPhone alternative.

Apple’s advantage in building such a gadget is that they do not just use off-the-shelf parts. They’d have to custom design chips, displays and batteries. Performance and power efficiencies would be paramount, and the iWatch would have to offer a genuine iOS experience, even if it’s slimmed down.

I am not for the moment suggesting that building an iWatch, making it work properly, and selling it for an affordable price would be simple tasks. Success would require a company with the design savvy, engineering expertise and almost unlimited resources of an Apple Inc. In contrast, the products other companies have produced as intended smartwatches don’t even come close. No wonder there are few buyers, and interest is almost non-existent.

Besides, I don’t claim to have any inside information that an iWatch, in any form, really exists, or will exist in the near future. But the mistake Apple’s critics make over and over again is viewing the company in comparison with other tech powerhouses. Once and for all, that is almost always a big mistake.