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“What would it take for you to buy an iWatch?” That’s the innocent question I asked my pharmacist friend Jon over breakfast.
Outside the tech media echo chamber, where Jon lives, people are pragmatic about the new watch. They’re asking questions about the use case, about the battery life, and about the safety and security of making payments with the device.
Tomorrow, Apple will make one of the most important announcements in its history. It looks to be a truly splashy event. Hell, U2 is even playing, the music circle is alleging. It’s the introduction of the first wholly new Apple product line since Steve Jobs died.
Beyond the design and the cool factor, here are seven things the watch could offer to get mainstream tech consumers interested:
Mobile payments done right
Apple is expected to put its full weight behind mobile payments, signaled by the addition of an NFC chip to both the new phone(s) and the iWatch. But perhaps the biggest question Apple will have to deal with is whether or not consumers will feel comfortable making mobile payments wirelessly, with confidence that their financial data won’t be stolen from the air by some bad actor.
Reports today say Apple will use token technology to safeguard credit card data. Token systems replace actual credit card numbers with long sequences of numbers that change after every use. It’s like an encryption system for financial data.
This may go a long way toward convincing consumers that it’s safe to make payments with the watch, but Apple will have to make a very big deal out the tokens part. It may even need to put some special branding around the token technology to convey to consumers that security is a central part of the product and a major concern of Apple and its partners.
An iPod on the wrist
An analyst friend of mine suggested a while back that the new watch might end up being called the “iPod Watch.” How strange, I thought, until my friend proposed that a big part of the iWatch’s success may be the way it manages and plays music. The analyst reminded me that the last iPod Apple released could actually be worn around the wrist with a wristband.
Watching ESPN this weekend I continually saw ads for Beats Electronics’ new wireless earbuds, the Powerbeats 2 Wireless. The woman in the ad was furiously working out in the gym listening to hip hop music. There was no headphone cable getting in the way of her movements. The Powerbeats connects to a phone’s music player via a Bluetooth connection.
Apple is surely looking for opportunities to integrate Beats products into its overall strategy, and linking the music player in an iWatch with some Beats wireless headphones may be a great opportunity to do that.
However, Apple has owned Beats Electronics only for a few months, and the design of the new phones and watch have been going on for years, so it may yet be too early to see any deep integration between the two companies’ products. In that case, in might be a pair of Apple wireless earphones that connect with the iWatch.
The point is, with or without Beats integration, music could be a big selling point of the watch. The challenge, of course, is to use such a small interface as an end point for the iTunes system. Battery life will also be a challenge.
Advanced NFC functions
As I wrote last week, the mobile payments capabilities of the new Apple products are getting all the press, but it’s the other NFC-enabled tricks of the watch that might end up being more interesting and useful.
NFC is known for being a short range radio technology that provides a good deal of security. So a watch with NFC might be used for quickly transferring something valuable and/or sensitive from a mobile system to a stationary one.
In another tie-in with an existing Apple product, the watch might become an end point for the HomeKit home automation platform. The watch might be able to send a burst of NFC data to the lock on the front door of a home; once the lock recognizes a unique code representing the user, it opens.
Using the same security protocols, the watch could do things like flight and hotel check-ins.
When we first heard about the iWatch, wearables were mainly being used for tracking things like heart rate and step count. The next wave of wearables will go much further, measuring things like blood oxygen levels and body fat index. They will begin to gather the data that explains why we feel the way we feel throughout the day.
The iWatch will need to be part of that next wave. The rumor mill has already said that the new watch’s band is filled with various kinds of sensors, but nobody knows exactly what they might do. Regardless, the watch will need to gather a compelling set of biometrics data from the wrist that will then be transmitted up to Apple’s cloud-base HealthKit platform.
HealthKit will offer a place where people can store and organize their personal health data, regardless of where it comes from. It could come from an app that asks the user a set of profile questions. It could come from the watch’s blood oxygen sensor, or it could come from connected scales and other devices.
We know that all that data can be pulled into the Health app on the iPhone, where it can be categorized and presented in a pleasing way. But we have very little idea of how the watch will present health data or what subset of the Health app data it will present.
Lots of consumers will want a watch that doesn’t have to be within three feet of an iPhone to do anything. Some Google employees described the new Android Wear watches as “remote controls for your phone.” While that makes sense in certain uses cases (like glancing at your wrist to see a message that just came in on your smartphone), it falls flat in others (like going out for a run without the added weight of a phone on your person).
The problem is, if you want to make a watch that works without a smartphone, you have to put a cellular radio on board. Not only does that add to the size of the watch, but it also uses more battery — already a problem with the smartwatches we’ve seen so far.
The fact is, Apple wants people who are used to wearing “dumb” wristwatches to consider buying an iWatch. If those people find out that many of the “smart” features are totally reliant on the presence of the phone, chances are they won’t switch.
The device is going to have to have a beautiful design. Rumors say it will have a curved glass top, but nothing much else is known. I’m imaging a brushed metal covering, with a screen that takes up almost all of the front of the watch.
Consumers may not go for an identical one-size-fits-all watch. If Apple has learned anything from the fashion and accessories industries, it will offer different sizes and styles for different wrist sizes and different tastes.
Finally, the new watch might open up a whole new apps marketplace. Some of the apps we saw with the introduction of the Android Wear watches were compelling. For instance, the food ordering and walking directions apps worked well and seemed like tools you might use a lot.
Google was very smart about the way it brought developers into the Wear app store. It created a new version of Android that allowed users to build a phone app, then add on a smartwatch app with just a few more steps. But it was all contained in one software development kit (SDK), making it easy for developers to begin building smartwatch apps.
Apple will need to take similar steps to make it easy for iOS developers. The robustness of the app store might not be a major factor in the initial decision to lay down the cash for an iWatch, but it might be the thing that keeps users interested as months go by.
Above all, Apple must convince consumers that there is a certain set of tasks that can be done far better on a watch than on a phone. If Apple can make the case powerfully, if it can truly make people think “If I had that watch, I wouldn’t be reaching into my pocket/purse for my phone right now,” the new watch, indeed the new category, might have a bright future.
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