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The iWatch: A Hard Sell

So it does seem that Apple will launch the iWatch during that September 9th media event at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino, CA. Ahead of the event, Apple is reportedly assembling a two-story structure there, in secret, to accommodate a larger audience. The auditorium will supposedly accommodate three times as many people as previous events.

It’s notable that this is the very location where the late Steve Jobs unveiled the original Macintosh in 1984. So there may be some significance, and not just audience capacity, for holding a launch event there.

Besides, it’s not as if Apple hasn’t raised the hype about what is to come. Senior VP Eddy Cue has been speaking of the greatest Apple product intros ever this fall, and Tim Cook has continued to promise great things that include new products in new categories. It’s important to note that the promise is made as a plural not a singular, so the iWatch may be just the beginning.

Maybe some other surprises will be in store for us, but that might be pressing the buttons a little too hard.

The larger question about an iWatch is whether or not people will decide they actually need one. That’s how Apple won the digital music player market. Before the iPod arrived, the existing gear didn’t sell so well. Having tested some, I regarded them as abysmally slow and difficult to use. Of course, they almost always required USB 1.0, which had relatively slow throughput. Apple’s advantage — until USB 2.0 took over and the Windows platform embraced the iPod — was to use FireWire.

So the iPod became the perfect portable digital device for tens of millions of people, and it help build an audience for the iPhone and, later, the iPad.

Both the iPhone and the iPad were built in answer to the shortcomings of existing gear. Instead of making it an executive plaything, the iPhone was the indispensable device for people of all ages, technically inclined or otherwise. Despite the fact that tablets had gone nowhere except for a few vertical markets, the iPad was, again, accessible to anyone and met the needs for many people as an accessory device or an actual replacement for a Mac or PC.

That takes us to the smartwatch dilemma. Just how many people really need a watch anymore? My son, aged 28, relies on his iPhone when he needs to know the time. Sure, it’s more awkward than looking at one’s watch, but people have priorities. Some, such as Mrs. Steinberg, wear a watch as an item of jewelry, not something with which to tell the time. In Barbara’s case, it’s mostly because her watch isn’t terribly accurate, but it looks just great on her tiny wrist.

So Apple has to consider the people who may not be potential customers for a watch and how to change their minds. The other issue is the functionality of existing smartwatches, and one recent device, the Samsung Gear S, has a built in mobile phone with 3G support. Calling Dick Tracy!

Indeed, the Gear S doesn’t look bad at all at first glance. It presents the face of a decent traditional watch with a curved rectangular face. The two-inch SuperAMOLED screen, with a 360 x 480 resolution, seems rather large for a watch, and thus would fit into the traditional men’s category. Would there be a smaller women’s version? That appears to be something lacking in most current models, and I don’t make the comment with sexist intentions. We’re talking about something that would be regarded as not just a fancy gadget, but a piece of jewelry that appeals to a larger audience not normally attracted to tech gear.

Now it’s true that the Samsung joins a small number of smartwatches that, shorn of the electronic goodies, appears to actually resemble a watch. Similar to other Samsung products of this sort, it uses the Tizen OS, which is a Linux-based OS that appears similar to Android, but doesn’t support Google Android Wear. If this thing catches on, maybe Samsung will take a huge step away from Android in their smartphone lines. Certainly they wouldn’t have to pay patent royalties to Microsoft for every unit sold, and that is a matter of litigation between the two companies.

Of course, it’s not so difficult to envision a watch-like interface for a potential iWatch, and a number of design concepts from graphic artists have already appeared, along with several variations on the potential specs. It wouldn’t stretch one’s imagination to assume that there will be support for HealthKit and HomeKit, so you can monitor your physical condition and maybe operate your home appliances, including the thermostat. Maybe even the door locks.

Still, Apple has to confront a market where getting through will be difficult, and is crying for a better solution to really take off. It happened with other ill-served markets with the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

Can lighting strike yet another time? I suppose we’ll have a better idea as we approach September 9th, assuming alleged random supply chain leaks become less random. Indeed, one of the commentators who appears on my radio show suggests that Apple might be building the iWatch in the U.S., thus affording them better control of potential information leaks in the supply chain. Don’t think so? What about the Mac Pro?