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Why a health-focused iWatch won't kill smartwatches like the iPod killed audio players

Jon Phillips | Feb. 4, 2014
When 9to5Mac reported Friday that an app code-named Healthbook will be a cornerstone of iOS 8 and the rumored upcoming iWatch, you could almost hear existing players in the wearables market fumbling around in their medicine cabinets, hunting for Xanax.

Yes, they should. Any wearable Apple releases will immediately capture the public imagination, and enjoy rock-star status in a category that begging for validation. But Apple's iWatch won't outright kill all competing wearables like the iPod killed off competing MP3 hardware. Here's why.

Google won't sit quietly
When Apple released the first iPod in late 2001, it entered a market populated by feckless, lightweight competitors. Creative Labs and Diamond — the names I remember best from that early MP3 hardware era — weren't consumer electronics powerhouses with stellar mainstream brand ID. Other contenders had even less gravitas.

But today we have Google. And Samsung. And even Sony and LG. All are entering the wearables space. And Google in particular has the war chest, product savvy, and platform ecosystem to prevent Apple from taking an insurmountable lead via the iWatch.

The world is currently focused on Google Glass, but I think a Google Now wristband will be Google's wearables triumph — and it will be inexpensive, simple, and completely unlike anything Apple will show us in the iWatch. Imagine a $99 wristband with a display just large enough to show you Google Now cards in perfect synchronicity with real-time life events. Google's wristband will push you Field Trip information, navigation directions, Hangout messaging, and other Googly info-nuggets. And of course simple "OK Google" voice recognition will help you get the information you want, on demand.

In effect, Google will cheat in one direction (search and information), while Apple will cheat in another (health and fitness). This product diversity will prevent Apple from dominating.

Now, nothing about Gurman's article suggests the iWatch will only be focused on fit-tech. We'll have to assume Apple's wearable will control music playback, iPhone notifications, and much, much more. But here's the important thing: Where MP3 players were one-trick ponies, wrist-worn wearables can be defined by a broad and eclectic range of features. Any single wearable that attempts to do too much will be rejected by the public for being too complex, for cramming way too much into a necessarily puny UI (see the current iteration of Samung's Galaxy Gear). So there's plenty of room for competing gadgets to co-exist as each one finds its niche.

Apple can't do this alone
If we accept on face value the proposition that the iWatch is primarily a wellness device — Gurman writes health and fitness tracking will be the "headline feature" of iOS 8 — then Apple will find itself in very unfamiliar territory.

Sometimes it seems the company can define itself in any direction, but because healthcare is so thematically dissonant with Apple's current product line-up — media consumption! content creation! Candy Crush Saga! — Tim Cook and company will need help from more serious, sober industry players. Indeed, for life-or-death functions like monitoring blood pressure and blood-glucose levels (another feature mentioned in the Gurman article), Apple will want to seek partners with deeper expertise, along with the antiseptic branding tones that inspire confidence in this market.

 

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