Apple iWatch: Watch, Fashion, Sensors or all three?

iWatch Concept Guess Late last year there was an excellent 60 minute episode of the Cubed.fm Podcast by Benedict Evans and Ben Bajarin, with guest Bill Geiser, CEO of Metawatch. Bill had been working on Smart watches for over 20 years, starting with wearables to measure his swimming activity, working for over 8 years as running Fossil‘s Watch Technology Division, before buying out that division to start Metawatch. He has also consulted for Sony in the design and manufacture of their Smart watches, for Microsoft SPOT technology and for Palm on their watch efforts. The Podcast is a really fascinating background on the history and likely future directions of this (widely believed to be) nascent industry: listen here.

Following that podcast, i’ve always listened carefully to the ebbs and flows of likely smart watch releases from Google, and from Apple (largely to see how they’ve built further than the great work by Pebble). Apple duly started registering the iWatch trademark in several countries (nominally in class 9 and 14, representative of Jewelry, precious metal and watch devices). There was a flurry of patent applications from Apple in January 2014 of Liquid Metal and Sapphire materials, which included references to potential wrist-based devices.

There have also been a steady stream of rumours that an Apple watch product would likely include sensors that could pair with health related applications (over low energy bluetooth) to the users iPhone.

Apple duly recruited Angela Ahrendts, previously CEO of Burberry, to head up Apple’s Retail Operations. Shortly followed by Nike Fuelband Consultant Jay Blahnik and several Medical technology hires. Nike (where Apple CEO Tim Cook is a Director) laid off it’s Fuelband hardware team, citing a future focus on software only. And just this weekend, it was announced that Apple had recruited the Tag Heuer Watches VP of Sales (here).

That article on the Verge had a video of an interview from CNBC with Jean-Claude Biver, who is Head of Watch brands for LVMH – including Louis Vuitton, Hennessey and TAG Heuer. The bizarre thing (to me) he mentioned was that his employee who’d just left for a contract at Apple was not going to a Direct Competitor, and that he wished him well. He also cited a “Made in Switzerland” marketing asset as being something Apple could then leverage. I sincerely think he’s not naive, as Apple may well impact his market quite significantly if there was a significant product overlap. I sort of suspect that his reaction was that of someone partnering Apple in the near future, not of someone waiting for an inbound tidal wave from an foreign competitor.

Google, at their I/O Developers Conference last week, duly announced Android Wear, among which was support for Smart Watches from Samsung, LG and Motorola. Besides normal time and date use, include the ability to receive the excellent “Google Now” notifications from the users phone handset, plus process email. The core hope is that application developers will start to write their own applications to use this new set of hardware devices.

Two thoughts come to mind.

A couple of weeks back, my wife needed a new battery in one of her Swatch watches. With that, we visited the Swatch Shop outside the Arndale Centre in Manchester. While her battery was being replaced, I looked at all the displays, and indeed at least three range catalogues. Beautiful fashionable devices that convey status and personal expression. Jane duly decided to buy another Swatch that matched an evening outfit likely to be worn to an upcoming family Wedding Anniversary. A watch battery replacement turned into an £85 new sale!

Thought #1 is that the Samsung and LG watches are, not to put a finer point on it, far from fashion items (I nearly said “ugly”). Available in around 5 variations, which map to the same base unit shape and different colour wrist bands. LG likewise. The Moto 360 is better looking (bulky and circular). That said, it’s typically Fashion/Status industry suicide with an offer like this. Bill Geiser related that “one size fits all” is a dangerous strategy; suppliers typically build a common “watch movement” platform, but wrap this in an assortment of enclosures to appeal to a broad audience.

My brain sort of locks on to a possibility, given a complete absence of conventional watch manufacturers involved with Google’s work, to wonder if Apple are OEM’ing (or licensing) a “watch guts” platform usable by Watch manufacturers to use in their own enclosures.

Thought #2 relates to sensors. There are often cited assumptions that Apple’s iWatch will provide a series of sensors to feed user activity and vital signs into their iPhone based Health application. On that assumption, i’ve been noting the sort of sensors required to feed the measures maintained “out of the box” by their iPhone health app, and agonising as to if these would fit on a single wrist based device.

The main one that has been bugging me – and which would solve a need for millions of users – is that of measuring glucose levels in the bloodstream of people with Diabetes. This is usually collected today with invasive blood sampling; I suspect little demand for a watch that vampire bites the users wrist. I found today that there are devices that can measure blood glucose levels by shining Infrared Light at a skin surface using near-infrared absorption spectroscopy. One such article here.

The main gotcha is that the primary areas where such readings a best taken are on the ear drum or on the inside of an arm’s elbow joint. Neither the ideal position for a watch, but well within the reach of earbuds or a separate sensor. Both could communicate with the Health App directly wired to an iPhone or over a low energy bluetooth connection.

Blood pressure may also need such an external sensor. There are, of course, plenty of sensors that may find their way into a watch style form factor, and indeed there are Apple patents that discuss some typical ones they can sense from a wrist-attached device. That said, you’re working against limited real estate for the devices electronics, display and indeed the size of battery needed to power it’s operation.

In summary, I wonder aloud if Apple are providing an OEM watch movement for use by conventional Watch suppliers, and whether the Health sensor characteristics are better served by a raft of third party, low energy bluetooth devices rather than an iWatch itself.

About the only sure thing is that when Apple do finally announce their iWatch, that my wife will expect me to be early in the queue to buy hers. And that I won’t disappoint her. Until then, iWatch rumours updated here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *