Apple’s Next Big Thing?

Just like every year, next Tuesday Apple’s annual iPhone event is taking place, bringing with it the new devices that have been cooking in Cupertino for the past year. Speculation this year is that instead of one new premium model, Apple will instead be launching two new models at new screen sizes.

Not only that, but this year according to reports and industry leaks, is bringing with it another special treat for Apple fans. 13 years after the iPod; 7 years after the iPhone and 4 years after defining the tablet industry with the iPad, the company is poised to enter a new industry once again: wearables. Expectations are high and many are bounding about preconceived ideas about what the product will be. Yet, with Apple products these aren’t always accurate. Many believed that the iPhone was too expensive and the iPad was just a big iPhone, meaning that neither would sell.

However, these proved incorrect, with both defining their categories and becoming massive successes. The same faults that led people to these conclusions last time are coming through yet again, with analysts looking at current wearables to make predictions. Up to now though, these have been wide of the mark. It’s important to take a look at Apple’s history and when they enter new categories they seek to innovate. Just like how an iPhone didn’t look like leading smartphones, Apple’s wearable will be different. Many call it the “iWatch”, but it will be far more than that, with the FT reporting that the new product will in fact have a different name.

iOS 8 builds out a lot of the technology needed for a wearable. Widget apps are available for the first time, with developers able to build a widget which is placed in the Notification Centre, providing glance-able information, with eBay and ESPN as examples, with these also making sense on a wearable’s display. Contacts, Notifications and other commonly used tools also take a lot less effort to reach, accessible in a few taps – again important if the iPhone isn’t used. Similarly, Spotlight search has become a lot more powerful, able to take in various sources like Wikipedia and Apple apps to find out information, turning it into a gateway to the world. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a feature called Handoff. The iPhone can share the data connection to devices automatically on-demand (important for a wearable using the iPhone’s data chip) while it can also share and make SMS messages and phone calls with iPads and Macs (again seamlessly transitioning to a wearable). Thus, we’re able to see how a wearable might take shape and the current technologies that it can use. Again, following history, features like this were used in the iPhone development, with development tools allowing resolution independence signalling a transition to Retina devices.

Of the current crop of wearables – ranging from Fitbit to Nike Fuelband – fitness is a major feature. The iPhone 5S can already track steps, but a wearable could introduce new sensors to track a whole range of new things – all kept in the Apple Healthbook app introduced in iOS 8. Apple has made major moves in this area, hiring various experts from Nike, medical and health experts and engineers over the past year, signalling its possible intent.

Payments might also be a significant area for the wearable. Mobile payments have been in the background for a while, but haven’t taken off just yet – with Apple shunning NFC chips until now. Levering the payment data from iTunes, you might be able to pay for things by showing your phone or wearable. Reports have signalled that Apple has deals with American Express, Visa and Mastercard meaning everything is set to go. With data secured on an independent enclave and accessed only via TouchID authentication, this could finally unlock mobile payments. Simplified versions of the technology are already used at Starbucks and Disney – where wearables are used to pay for anything, gaining access to rooms or even signing up for character meet-ups. Similar to history, this is another great example of Apple introducing a technology (TouchID) to develop it, before it becomes a major part of a function.

Being announced at an iPhone event it might well be an iPhone accessory, but over time this will likely change. As a new product category, Apple might feel that consumers don’t understand the a full-blown wearable straight away, so they make the learning curve more manageable. Just like how the first iOS apps used “skeuomorphism” – software mimicking real world items, like a music app showing a tape recorder – this will seek to make people familiar with the device. It’s likely that the first device focusses on a few main points, as detailed above – payments and fitness – but over time the platform expands in subsequent years with various editions, price points, and styles. I think this will be just the start of Apple’s wearables category – ushering in the era of fashion into personal technology. Software is eating the world, with software eating large portions of entertainment, communications and other industries – and apparel, which already competes with technology in many respects, may well be next. You can tell that Apple is already planning for this shift by hiring many fashion executives from Yves Saint Laurent and Burberry.

Even with all of this, I think that expectations have to be kept in check even though I have no doubt the product will grow to become an incredibly useful part of our lives. Apple’s wearable will meet our expectations just as the iPad turned out to be more than a bigger iPhone, but history provides lessons in this department as well. The iPod needed the iPod Mini and the iPhone needed 3G and the App Store before they both took off to become the next big thing. Therefore, although it’s tempting, you cannot judge the new product on the first version alone. Usually the first version is something Apple uses as an entrance into the industry, dipping its toe in the water. Instead, just as with the previous devices, it will build upon the technology, developing into Apple’s vision over time.

Just like with all Apple products before it, the product will have many doubters. Yet again, this happens to many innovations as people fail to see the possibilities. Thus, “the next big thing is always beneath contempt.” A breakthrough product is always seen as unimportant until it is too big to ignore. This has happened throughout history, with people in the Middle Ages believing that nothing good could happen in anything but Latin or writers assuming that television would die a quick death. Many right now think of wearables in the same fashion – but that might well become a mistaken view of the future. These devices will let us do things that we never imagined, so it’s important to keep an open mind. It didn’t matter that tablets were unimportant before the iPad and the same could happen with an Apple wearable.

Sadly we’ll likely have to wait to get our hands on the device with no hardware leaks found meaning that it will not ship for a few months at least. Following the iPhone and iPad it will be announced to ship later, giving developers time to work on some new products. Either way, lessons from history should teach us a lot about the new product before it’s even released. We shouldn’t judge the product’s first version and at the same time, we should realise that Apple would have been looking at the product as a blank canvas, upon which anything is possible.