News of delays in Apple’s iWatch project should come as no surprise. The idea, as suggested by a headline this morning The Register (UK), that the iWatch is “late”—that Apple can’t tell time—is laughable. Apple is trying to solve a very difficult problem and, in true Apple style, it wants to come up with the simplest solution possible. In the trigonometry of product development, the designer tries to factor out an ugly radical to arrive at an elegant solution. This is just the problem space that Apple is in and the latest news indicates that it is not yet solved.
The central question, I think, is can Apple solve the iWatch with a single, unitary product (albeit one that might come in different sizes for men and women, perhaps.) Certainly that would be Apple’s preferred solution. In a recent interview with Vinod Khosla, Google’s CEO Larry Page said that Steve Jobs told him that, “You guys are doing too much stuff.” By extension, Samsung rebuked Apple, in effect saying Cupertino was not doing enough stuff. We can see in the Post-Jobs Apple this tension between hewing to the unitary gospel and giving in to the inevitability of multiplicity.
Part of this solving of the iWatch equation can be seen in this light as a battle within Apple itself. Certainly there must be factions within Apple and the iWatch team itself on both sides of the issue. If it turns out that the right solution is a range of products under the iWatch moniker, this will be a major departure for Apple. For Apple-watchers like myself, there is always the question of whether details that emerge fit the existing pattern or whether they suggest a new pattern. You can neatly map Apple’s present actions into its past actions until there is actually a new pattern, a new curve. Trying to map divergent data into an existing curve leads to “overfitting,” which is one of the means through which a successful machine learning algorithm can go south. That is the larger issue raised by the iWatch—is it the beginning of a new pattern of product development for Apple?
So far there have been two primary ideas proposed about what Apple's AAPL +1.29% iWatch will be. The first is fitness-oriented and can be thought of as an improved version of Nike’s Fuelband. Not coincidentally, Nike, whose board Tim Cook sits on, has cut back its Fuelband hardware program and Apple has hired some of its engineers. The second is health-oriented and would seem to involve a multitude of sensors that can deliver data directly to health care providers and services. Apple’s five-year partnership with the Mayo Clinic should bear fruit here, but it might just as likely begin to bloom in the iPhones that Apple users already possess.
Often these two ideas of health and fitness are combined into a single product, but one with an undefined form. Will it have a round face, square or rectangular or be more like a flexible band made out of screen material? When I think about a purely fitness oriented product, I think light, simple and streamlined. But when I think of who might be most interested in a health-monitoring device, I think of middle-aged executives concerned about their hearts or sugar levels. Many of these potential customers already wear watches and they tend to be large, heavy and designed to impress. When I described the iWatch as Apple’s luxury brand play, these are the consumers I was thinking of.
If you think about it, there is an interesting coincidence between luxury watches (which tend to be large) and a health and fitness device promoted by pro-athletes (who tend to be large.) Within both contexts a larger device would fit right in. This fits in with my idea that Apple will go luxe and exclusive first. In that market a large and expensive device would work and build market demand for slimmer, cheaper more mass-oriented iWatches as the technology and manufacturing capabilities develop to allow them.
Considering how much we think we know about the next iPhone, and how early we have known it, the lack of any credible leaks about the iWatch must mean something. One possibility, as KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo suggested last week, is that production on the iWatch has been pushed back. He now estimates iWatch shipments in 2014 to now be only 3 million instead of the 10 million he had previously predicted. Investors are now being told to fear that an iWatch delay will put too much pressure on the new iPhone line to carry the holiday season. I think these fears are misplaced as are the exaggerated estimates of what the iWatch will do for Apple’s revenues (Motley Fool, you know who you are!)
As Google GOOGL +1.3% has shown with their cautious exploration of wearables with Glass and now with Android Wear, use patterns for these devices are not yet set. And the intimacy of a watch that touches your skin all day long and can disclose signals of the inner workings of your body raises issues even more complex than the smartphone, our current intimate. Google’s failed forays into health should also serve as a caution for Apple’s ambitions. In that same interview with Kholsa, Sergei Brin complained, “health is just so heavily regulated. It’s just a painful business to be in.”
Apple, in their style, is letting the Mayo Clinic do the heavy lifting for them, and this may well turn out to be a better strategy than Google’s. Because Google’s goal is to make as much data as possible mineable it often runs afoul of the existing businesses its actions are disrupting. Since Apple’s goal is to sell hardware it can afford to cede some control of data to its branded partners, in this case Mayo. If what Apple gets in return is some immunity for HIPAA laws for its apps, that’s a deal worth making.
Speaking of branded partners, Apple just bough one. I haven’t heard anyone mention the idea of a Beats-themed iWatch optimized for navigating music. Think of the product placements Dre and Iovine could come up with for that! These are the kinds of possibilities that the iWatch-as-a-Platform would afford Apple, and I suspect there are many more. There are two ways to look at the solvability of the iWatch problem. If we look at the visual taxonomy of mobile phones before Apple introduced the iPhone it was certainly more varied than the current landscape. Post-iPhone mobile phones are basically screens of a certain size and thickness, with bezels of varying sizes with or without a physical home button. The iPhone effectively caused the mass extinction of the flip phone, the slide out keyboard, the Blackberry, etc.
But if you look at the visual taxonomy of wristwatches now, pre-iWatch, it is an even more varied landscape than mobile phones ever were. So, on the one hand, we could say that the iWatch will do for the panoply of wristwatch formats what the iPhone did for mobile phones, or, on the other, we could say that wristwatches serve more varied tastes and uses than mobile phones and a unitary solution is not, in fact, optimal.
My bet is on multiplicity. I say this knowing that betting on Apple to change its habits is historically a losing proposition. I think that wearables will prove to be more (and less) than an iPhone on your wrist. Until the technology is such that everything that an iPhone can do can fit on your wrist in a compact casing—that you never have to think about charging—there will be tradeoffs between size, functionality and battery life. Considering that only certain hardware functions are relevant to certain users, it is a waste to make a large device that needs to be charged more often for features of no value to the customer. I doubt that Apple can convince all of its customers that they need to keep track of their heart rate and glucose levels, or whatever.
Apple may well come out with one iWatch to rule them all, but this may be a misstep. If Apple is indeed asking pro athletes like Kobe Bryant to test-drive devices, this would provide useful feedback from highly demanding customers. If Kobe forgets to charge his iWatch, Apple will know it’s not a winner.