A concept illustration of an Apple smartwatch. Photo: Federico Ciccarese
A series of reports this week in the US have all but confirmed that Apple is developing a "smart watch" as it seeks to repeat its trick with the iPhone and iPad and create a new market.
The details of the device are sketchy, but it is claimed its features could include a curved touchscreen made from a new type of flexible glass, an array of sensors to monitor exercise patterns and heart rate, "wave and pay" function, access to maps, voice control and wireless integration with the iPhone. That could allow the wearer to take calls and read messages without having to delve into a pocket or bag, or mean the iPhone would know when it was in its owner's hand and unlock automatically.
Apple reportedly has a team of 100 product designers working on the project, indicating it is beyond the experimentation phase and heading towards production. It is claimed that Foxconn, the contractor that assembles iPhones and iPads in vast Chinese factory complexes, is in talks with Apple about the device, as well as working with component suppliers on efficient microchips and displays.
Concept ... Antonio De Rosa's iWatch design.
Although he has insisted Apple will maintain its ironclad secrecy, the flurry of information could be seen as auspicious for Tim Cook, Steve Jobs' successor as chief executive. He is under pressure from investors to address sliding profit margins and stock prices. With the iPhone and iPad facing ever-stronger competition and the iPod market dwindling, opening a new front could be the answer.
For some observers, reports of an "iWatch" from sources including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg are a sign that the age of "wearable technology" is nigh. Just as smartphones and tablets were relatively niche products before Apple intervened, it's reckoned the firm's design flair will kickstart a new gadget category.
"Most of all, an Apple iWatch will immediately make the behaviour of wearing your tech acceptable, just like Siri created a new social norm of talking to your phone like it's a person," said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester.
"Apple can launch a new product like no other company because it owns its own retail channel, has privileged real estate in other retailers, and has a brand that's recognised even by two-year-olds."
The suggestion that Siri, Apple's voice assistant software, has redefined social norms is perhaps a touch grand given that it is so far widely viewed as little more than a novelty. Scott Forstall, the executive responsible for Siri, was forced out last year.
Apple does, however, have an ability to configure existing technology in ways that make it appealing to consumers as never before. There were mobile phones with internet access, mapping software and even touchscreens before the iPhone was introduced in 2007; they just failed to capture mainstream attention.
Likewise, wearable technology and smart watches are not Apple ideas. The company already benefits from third-party wearable accessories such as the Nike FuelBand and FitBit, which link to the iPhone and track exercise.
The Pebble smart watch is the poster boy for Kickstarter, the "crowd funding" website that encourages new ventures to appeal to the internet public for funding. With capabilities similar to some of those claimed for Apple's watch, Pebble raised more than $10 million from almost 70,000 would-be owners and is now manufacturing and shipping its product.
The essential challenge facing smart watch designers is miniaturisation. All the main technologies – screens, processors, GPS, mobile software, Bluetooth wireless networking – are mature and in mass use. The problem is cramming them into something small enough to look stylish on a wrist. Industry analysts are making increasingly bullish predictions for wearable technology based on the belief that if any gadget designers can crack it, Apple's can.
The cultural differences between Apple and Google are evident in their approaches to wearable technology, a market that IMS research has claimed will be worth $6 billion by 2015. While Apple has reportedly chosen to start with something relatively unobtrusive – wristwatches have been "wearable technology" for almost 150 years, after all – its rival is working on a computer you wear on your face.
Google Glass, a project led by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, suggests a near future in which reality is augmented via a pair of spectacles with all the capabilities of a smartphone. Already in public testing, Google Glass's tiny screen projects the web into your field of vision, while "bone conduction" headphones transmit sound directly through your skull, allowing you to hear the surrounding environment.
It might sound like the stuff of science fiction next to Apple's relatively conservative plans, but it is another sign the industry is convinced wearable technology is a mainstream proposition.