Before we begin, a confession. We haven’t tested the iWatch yet. To be honest, we haven’t seen it. You know what? We don’t even know it exists, or that it’s ever going to. Phew! Glad that’s out there.
What we do know is that wearable computing is one of this year’s major trends, whether or not Apple decides to join in. (And between the two of us, there’s a fair bit of evidence that it will.) From the Kickstarter-funded Pebble smartwatch to the Google Glass head-mounted display, numerous companies are responding to consumer interest in super-portable communications.
It’s likely to be a highly disruptive trend, too: almost all aspects of personal computing will be affected. If and when Apple drops its iWatch, you can expect some fireworks.
Illustration by James Walker
Reports about the iWatch indicate that it would be tethered to an iPhone or iPad that would provide a stream of content and alerts to the wearer, including email, caller ID, calendar info and updates of pre-selected information like weather reports and stock quotes. All of these ideas are present in existing smartwatches coming to market, including the Pebble watch, which can pair with an iPhone or Android phone. Many are also anticipated uses for Google Glass, which is expected to ship by the end of the year.
All of these capabilities have direct business potential. The updates that can be displayed on an iWatch are often those that professionals check throughout the day. Accessing them in an unobtrusive way on a wearable device would allow workers to check notifications in real time without disrupting a meeting – or even a casual conversation – by pulling out their phone and unlocking it.
While distraction-free meetings are a big business innovation for an iWatch, they’re relatively small compared to what such a device could mean in terms of data security. In fact, an iWatch could be the perfect solution to many IT concerns about mobile devices.
The key is that the iWatch would be designed to pair with a mobile device – most likely an iPhone. That offers an easy way to set up advanced authentication. The iWatch could replace a passcode on an iPhone or iPad. If the iWatch is in range, the iOS device could unlock without a passcode, saving users’ time.
More dramatically, the iWatch could be used as a physical security token alongside a passcode to offer multifactor authentication. If the iWatch isn’t detected by the device, it would remain locked even after the user (or someone who has stolen it) enters the passcode It could wipe all data (or all corporate data). Or even send out an alert, to help ensure sensitive data is securely erased and/or aid in recovering the device.
The idea isn’t all that different from many token-based access systems, including smartcards. Such tokens are often used to secure access to sensitive devices or computers as well as to encrypted data on a computer or access to a secure network. Similar systems are also used to control access to offices and secure buildings. They’re also becoming common features of automobiles that rely on a keychain fob rather than a traditional car key. In fact, depending on the technology used in an iWatch, it could be used for all of these purposes.
Apple could ratchet up the security even further – almost to the level of a spy thriller – with a third level of authentication. If Apple includes biometric sensors in the iWatch, which is expected, the company could ensure that the wearer is the legitimate owner of both the iWatch and a paired device. A bit like James Bond’s gun in Skyfall.
The most obvious biometric authentication is a thumbprint scanner – quite possible, given Apple’s purchase of AuthenTec last year. Other options might include an iris scan or facial recognition. All of these ideas would require specific hardware like a camera to be built into the iWatch, but there’s another option that might be just as secure and much easier – listening to a user’s heartbeat.
Given the popularity of devices like the Nike+ Fuelband and Fitbit activity monitors, it seems logical for Apple to build such features into an iWatch. The company has had a long relationship with Nike for pairing devices with running shoes. That would mean sensors to detect movement, temperature, and heart rate. Heart-rate monitoring offers an easy biometric identification option.
Much like we all have unique fingerprints, we also each have a unique cardiac rhythm. Cardiac biometric recognition systems are already on the market as standalone solutions or as part of even more comprehensive biometric authentication system by companies like Bionym. Incorporating that into a iWatch already designed to measure cardiac activity should be a relatively easy task that wouldn’t require additional sensors or hardware.