While the world awaits new details surrounding the next-generation iPhone and a much rumored HDTV, news that Apple (AAPL) is developing an iOS-powered watch made the rounds on Sunday. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times each pointed to multiple unnamed sources when reporting the news around the same time, and few details were made available. The Times merely said Apple is “experimenting with wristwatch-like devices made of curved glass” that will run iOS, and WSJ added that Apple has discussed the device with longtime manufacturing partner Hon Hai. The fact that these papers published their reports almost simultaneously suggests this may be a controlled leak, but a question remains: Does the world want an Apple watch?
Smart watches are nothing new. A number of companies including Motorola and Sony (SNE) have launched smart watches in recent years, but none of them have gained much traction. Positioned as companion devices for smartphones, these watches offer a number of compelling features and yet they still failed to draw any real consumer interest.
There are indications that a market exists for such a product, however, and the Pebble smart watch drew plenty of attention from the media after the team behind it raised more than $10 million on KickStarter and racked up more than 85,000 preorders. Those are big numbers, of course, but only in the context of a small startup.
Smart watches are undoubtedly niche products right now and the mass market is not clamoring for a new smartphone companion. Apple still seems interested in the space though, and this weekend’s reports were the latest in a string of rumors to the same effect. The question, of course, is whether such a device will be the next iPhone or the next Apple TV.
Apple was a late entrant in the smartphone market, but it offered enough differentiation and enough compelling features that it spawned a revolution and reshaped the industry.
Apple was also a relatively late entrant in the set-top box market when it launched the Apple TV in 2007, but the box didn’t really offer anything special that caught consumers’ collective eye. The resulting product is still very much a hobby for the time being, as the Apple TV is barely a blip on Apple’s revenue radar.
An “iWatch” could go either way. While there may be a niche market that has shown interest in smart watches that connect to a smartphone and offer a range of add-on functionality, mass-market consumers have given no indication that they are interested in such a device. But the same could have been said about tablets before Apple’s iPad was released in 2010.
With the right feature set, real differentiation and a serious marketing budget, Apple may indeed have the next big thing if and when it unveils an iOS-powered smart watch. It’s hardly a sure thing, however, and this weekend’s “leaks” could very well be a play to take the market’s temperature if Apple is still in the very early stages of development.