iWatch: What Apple needs to make it work

On the kid’s TV show Go Diego Go, the title character frequently connects with other members of his animal rescue team via his video watch. It didn’t take too many episodes before my four-year-old son popped the question: “Daddy, can we buy ME a video watch?” I am counting on Apple to help me eventually tell him we can.

At the moment, however, there is nothing but speculation of the wildest kind making its way online. Many believe Apple is making a wristwatch-like device that would play music like an iPod, place calls like an iPhone and run apps like an iPad, all in one small form factor.

The hype went into overdrive this week when a Citigroup Inc. analyst, Oliver Chen, forecast that a tech-enabled wristwatch could enjoy far greater margins than would an iTV, the other rumoured Apple product. Though a so-called iWatch once seemed like more of a long-term project, a few industry observers now believe a device could be launched sometime later this year.

Lucas Roberts is among those putting the guessing-games aside and thinking hard about whether an iWatch could find traction in the market. Roberts is the CEO of Macinhome Consulting, a firm based in Vancouver which helps home and office customers make better use of Apple products and services. He pointed out that wearable versions of Mac hardware are already popular among some consumers.

“I know people really like the iPod Nano with the wrist strap, so there’s certainly potential for it,” he said. “The biggest limitation is that you only have one hand, so typing could be difficult.”

On the other hand, Roberts noted that Apple has been trying to advance voice recognition as a new form of input, introducing the automated assistant Siri in the iPhone 4S which tries to understand verbal commands. Siri might find an even better home in an iWatch, though it might increase the debate over the technology’s accuracy. “You’d also need some sort of wireless earbuds, because there’s no way I want a cord running from my wrist to my ear,” Roberts added.

Fair enough. But the most compelling reason for an iWatch might be the advancement of communicating via mobile video chat. Apple has a technology for this called FaceTime that has already attracted a lot of fans after it was included in the iPhone. “Having a watch that could do Facetime would be brilliant,” Roberts enthused.

Video chat is certainly on the rise. I recently spoke with TokBox, a San Francisco-based startup that offers ways for developers to create functionality similar to FaceTime in their apps. Ian Small, ToxBox’s CEO, said video communication could soon become as natural as speaking via a regular phone is today.

“Too many people are in a place where a camera makes more sense and there isn’t some other bandwidth access problem or other reason you wouldn’t have video,” he said, adding that more than half of the calls via Microsoft’s Skype technology are video calls today. “My expectation is you’ll see that kind of number go up to 70-75, maybe 80 per cent, then hit a natural maximum.”

An iWatch could certainly help drive that. But Roberts pointed out that FaceTime would require 3G capability at least, which might drain a watch-sized battery pretty quickly. These are the things Apple has to figure out before it can bring such a device to market. TV shows like Go Diego Go make the creation of a next-generation wristwatch seem much more simple than it really is. So do all the rumour-mongers.

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