Will 2014 be the year when Apple joins the wearable computing revolution and unveils an iWatch? With the new year almost upon us, Macworld makes its end-of-the-year predictions for 2014, and outlines the moves we think Apple will make in the wearable technology field.
One of the most exciting areas of technology yet to be properly explored is that of wearable devices. Google caught the headlines in 2013 with its Glass innovation, showing how users could experience the practical features of a mobile phone without the need for a handset or touchpad. Instead of traditional interfaces, Glass projects a display in front of your eyes which you control primarily by voice commands.
Sound is transmitted to the user by 'bone conduction', whereby vibrations are sent through the skull to the inner ear, which is actually far more pleasant than it sounds and means other people won’t be able to listen in on your calls. The potential is definitely exciting, but the device itself is housed in a bulky-looking pair of glasses that currently sell for around £1000. Of course Google will refine the product, but until it becomes something far more subtle in design terms, we can’t see it achieving mass market appeal in the near future.
Smartwatches were also released across the year by Sony, Samsung, and the Kickstarter-funded Pebble. But their limited functionality and awkward user interfaces only went to highlight the challenges that face developers in this area. Actually the biggest successes in the wearable tech space so far are definitely fitness devices, such as the Nike Fuelband, Fitbit Flex, and Jawbone’s Up. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is a proud wearer of the Nike Fuelband (he also happens to sit on the Nike board of directors) and at the D11 conference last year he explained why he thought it was such an appealing device.
"This does primarily one thing," said Cook, "the [devices] that do more than one... there's nothing great out there that I've seen. There's nothing that's going to convince a kid who has never worn glasses, or a band, or a watch, or whatever, to wear one."
With his usual diplomatic tact, Cook refused to be drawn on whether Apple would be releasing its own product in this space, but he did drop in one of his increasingly regular teaser statements.
"I think wearables is incredibly interesting," he said, "and I think it could be a profound area for technology."
So, will we see a new, wearable device from Apple in 2014? It seems so. Rumours have been rife that Apple has been secretly designing something called the iWatch, a title that was given more weight after the company applied to trademark the iWatch name in several countries around the world.
Technically Apple has already had a wearable watch device, in the shape of the 6th-generation iPod Nano. Many thought it strange that just as third-party manufacturers were beginning to build cases that converted the small, square iPod into a wristwatch, Apple changed the design to a taller thin model, scuppering a burgeoning market in the process. Maybe it was to improve the UI, as the 6th-gen iPod was a little hard to use, or could it possibly be that Apple wanted to save the watch market for what was to come next?
The problem they face is how to make something that's small enough to fit on your wrist but is actually useful? Mike Elgan, noted Apple commentator, wrote on the Cult of Mac site that "Traditionally, wristwatches were used for telling the time - a one-second interaction. I think smartwatches will also favour one-second interactions, and lots of them."
iWatch predictions: What screen size will the iWatch have?
This makes a good deal of sense, as people won't want to interact with a tiny screen to do anything complex, and Apple would be foolish to try and replace its iPhone (which now makes up over two-thirds of the company's profits) with a far more limited device.
The kind of screen size that has been mentioned in iWatch rumours is often around 1.5in, with some new reports suggesting that there might even be two models - 1.3in for women and 1.7in for men. Either of these displays would immediately rule out reading anything longer than a text, watching movies, browsing the internet, or even simple games. No, for the iWatch to be a success it needs to offer an elegant solution to a real problem and one that genuinely adds to the user experience.
This suggests, then, that the iWatch is more likely to be a companion to either your iPad or iPhone, rather than a standalone unit. If Apple makes it waterproof then it could easily become a remote control that would give you access to messages, allow you to change the music on your iPhone, or even operate Siri by speaking into the iWatch rather than taking your phone out of your pocket. This has security implications too, as the watch would be harder to grab than an iPhone, possibly reducing the disturbing trend of violent muggings that Apple devices have suffered.
Remote sensors linked via iCloud could also enable the iWatch to execute simple commands such as opening a garage door, turning on the heating before you arrive home, or acting as a remote control for your Apple TV.
The obvious other use for the iWatch would be as an alternative to the aforementioned Nike Fuelband. With so many health and fitness apps on iOS it would be easy for the device to integrate into that ready-made eco-system. If Apple included the M7 co-processor that already resides in the iPhone 5s, which has been purpose built to monitor movement and act upon the data it gathers, it would make a perfect fit for a device that automatically tracks your activities and updates your progress.
With new curved glass technology arriving on the market, including the ultra-thin Willow Glass that long-time Apple partner Corning has been working on, there has never been a better time for a beautifully designed, precision engineered device of this type to finally become a reality. Apple has also recently invested heavily in a production site for Sapphire, which could be laminated into curved glass displays and add a much tougher surface for something like a watch, that’s likely to be knocked and scraped more often than a phone. In classic fashion, others have tried to make it work, but have stumbled over the design implementation. Time for Apple to show them how it's done.