There is no shortage of signs that wearable technology is the next big thing in the world of personal electronics. Tech giants like Samsung and Google have already made heavy investments and are rushing all sorts of products to the market. Indeed, given that Pebble—a pioneer in this space—has reportedly sold 400,000 units of its smartwatch, it’s clear that the time of wearable tech is upon us.
Still, one tech giant has, so far, sat out this trend. Despite the frenzied doomsday predictions from analysts, Apple hasn’t made any noise about a new device in this space. CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly indicated that, while Apple is interested in the market, it’s nowhere mature enough for the company to wade in—yet.
The wearable conundrum
As someone who has had to wear spectacles for his entire life without managing to look cool for even one day, it’s hard for me to fault Cook’s point of view—and not just because Pebble’s sale numbers, while impressive, are a mere fraction of the tens or hundreds of millions of units that Apple products typically sell.
The main problem is that the products that have made it to market are, essentially, engineered backwards. Glasses are something we are all familiar with; it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination, however groundbreaking the technology, to simply strap a camera and computer to them. Ditto for adding a Bluetooth connection to the wristwatch, a device that has been part of humankind’s apparel for hundreds of years.
When you look at it this way, the wearable devices market is eerily similar to the smartphone market, circa 2007: The technology to create a product that is truly revolutionary is more or less all here; it just hasn’t been put together the right way yet—and that’s something that Apple excels at.
Gear with a purpose
When Apple introduced the iPhone, the folks from Cupertino made the striking the decision to do away with a hardware keyboard altogether. They realized that screen real estate was all important in a device that was meant to fit in your pocket; getting rid of it meant overcoming the really hard task of making an on-screen keyboard that would work well, but the result was well worth the effort.
When it comes to wearable devices, the likely target of Apple’s innovation is in the realm of sensors that will allow the company to record vital information about its users, like their blood pressure, oxygenation levels, glucose concentration, and so on.
These types of sensors are already available on the market, but they are generally cumbersome or intrusive. If they were instead built into a device that fits unobtrusively on a person’s body, they could potentially revolutionize the entire world of personal medicine. Even just being able to measure the user’s blood pressure throughout the day could provide early warning of many common diseases, potentially saving thousands of lives (and millions of dollars) by providing doctors with a more complete picture of a person’s health
Command and control
On a more mundane level, wearable tech could improve our lives merely by being attached to our bodies. For example, a wearable device could very easily double as a TV remote, thus saving you from having to keep track of where your actual TV remote is, or whether its batteries are charged.
Or, perhaps, the technology behind Passbook could be extended to allow your wearable tech to identify you, making it easier to unlock your doors, pay for your groceries, turn on your car, or get through security at work. Unlike a smartphone, a wearable device is always at hand (or maybe at your fingertips) no matter where you go, making these kinds of interaction much more organic and convenient.
In all these cases, Apple’s huge advantage is its complete control over the iOS platform. Like Android, iOS is in the hands of hundreds of millions of people. Unlike Android, however, it’s tightly controlled by a single entity that has, so far, only allowed limited fragmentation of its ecosystem, and it also tends to find its way into the hands of users that actively engage with everything it has to offer.
This places the company in the unique position of being able to offer manufacturers of sensors and other personal-tech devices a common platform on which they are forced to make their products work well with one another—a major problem in today's market—in exchange for access to a community of eager users that like to invest in their electronics.
Much as it has done with CarPlay, Apple could leverage its market position to make its wearable device interact with a wide range of external systems, from TV sets to security systems, and dramatically improve the quality of our lives by removing all sorts of inconveniences.
Let form follow function
Far from the doom-and-gloom scenarios painted by industry analysts who claim that Apple must introduce an “iWatch” before competitors eat its corporate lunch, the future of wearable technologies is still entirely up for grabs.
This makes the current batch of watches and glasses little more than a distraction; by focusing on form, rather than function, they limit our ability to envision the kind of changes that the wearable-tech equivalent of an iPhone could bring.
Nobody but Apple knows what the company’s wearable device will look like; it may well wrap around your wrist, or possibly around your finger, or perhaps take some other form that makes it less visible and yet equally functional. Either way, I can’t wait to find out what this new technology will do for us, whatever its form.