Ruminations on Apple's Media Event: It's Not an 'iWatch'

A lot of the details about the purported Apple iPhone 6 have already come to light, and assuming the multitude of corroborating stories are more than just the same rumor bouncing around the tech press Echo Chamber (a big assumption, to be sure), it seems likely that Apple is set to announce two iPhones during Tuesday's media event, with a 4.7 and 5.5-inch screen. John Gruber's math on screen resolution seems to work out well, so I'll take the "ultra high" resolution speculation on its face; the alternative of a sub-retina display is certainly not where Apple would go with this.

Let's focus, then, on the other part of the announcement -- one that would justify the "Jobsoleum" (hat tip to @flargh) that Apple erected outside the Flint Center. Rumors, or at least hopeful speculation, about an iWatch have been floating around for the last couple of years, and seem likely to come to fruition today. But much like the conjecture in advance of Apple's 2010 iPad announcement, and even the guesses surrounding the first iPhone in 2007, guessing that there will be an Apple wearable and predicting what such a device would actually look like and do are two very different things.

I find that with Apple, it's often much easier to deduce what it won't do than what it will, so let's start there.

Don't expect a "smart watch." That is, it's highly unlikely that Apple will fall in step with a device that easily lines up with what's been produced before. There were MP3 players before the iPod, smart phones before the iPhone and tablet computers before the iPad. Although some pundits may claim they predicted Apple's entry into each of those previous markets, that's a cheat. In each case, Apple bucked the trend and introduced a device that raised the category to entirely new levels. If Apple does indeed announce a wearable today, it won't be an iteration of the products that defined the category yesterday. In other words, it won't simply be an electronic watch on a strap that connects with your phone to allow you to take calls or read an incoming text. Oh, it will almost certainly do that, but it's what else it will do that will reinvent the device.

My take on it is that it may not just be a wearable at all, but perhaps a line of products. Some may be able to be worn on their own, like a Fitband. But what if they could also be embedded into other accessories or even clothing? That could give them far more utility. Apple's HealthKit certainly hints at a device that can monitor your biometrics, integrating with apps, synced to the cloud. What if they could be integrated into clothes or accessories that could extend their functionality? Nike would certainly be on board with that, as would many others.

Payment processing has also been speculated, and would work well in this environment. I'd long been skeptical that Apple would embrace NFC -- or near field communication -- but evidence suggests that might now be the case. Or perhaps iBeacon or some other implementation of Bluetooth Low Energy would work as well.

Might an iWatch support FaceTime? Perhaps, although I wonder about the quality of video streaming and the impact on battery life.

A much improved version of Siri ("Wish we could say more") is also likely to make an appearance, as well as support for Apple's other big new iOS 8 technology, HomeKit. Imagine never having to dig for your house keys because your door automatically unlocks as you approach (and turns on your lights when you walk in your house.

What would the screen of an iWatch look like? I doubt it would be an always-on affair, with a digital rendition of an analog face. More likely (and better for the battery life) would be a screen that comes to life when you need it -- when a call or text comes in or when you lift your wrist to look at it.
I see Apple's wearable not so much as an extension of your phone, but one of your life -- or at least lifestyle. It connects not so much with your iPhone but with the Internet of Things.

Apple's gift has always been more than stacking features onto its devices, but enabling us to do things we hadn't been able to do before. Even more than that: to enable us to do things we hadn't thought of doing before. That's the magic; that's what Apple's competitors have been so unable to copy.

One more thought about timing and availability: A lot of the recent rumors have been speculating that whatever wearable is announced today won't be available until next year. John Gruber has posited that may because the device will need some sort of regulatory approval that necessitates a pre-announcement.

I wonder though if it's due more to Apple's success. As Apple becomes more popular it requires production on a much larger scale. That means more people who know, more components in the pipeline and more opportunities for leaks. Perhaps an earlier- than-usual announcement is Apple's way of keeping its ability to deliver a big surprise.

We've seen it for at least the last two releases of the iPhone. Despite Apple's "doubling down" on secrecy, leaked photos and part for both the iPhone 5 and 6 have become common. When you're ramping up production in the millions, it's just harder to keep all those things under wraps. In announcing the new device (I like the idea of an "iPod w" or something along those lines, by the way), Apple still controls when it gets unveiled, and how. The company gets first dibs on how it's described, to whom it's shown and who gets to review it first: Tech-savvy, Apple-friendly critics like Walt Mossberg and David Pogue rather than some guy who sets up a YouTube channel.

Time will tell, and quite little of it remains to wait for the answers. When they come later today, I expect to have gotten some of this right, a lot of it wrong, and the parts of most lasting significance completely unforeseen.

See you at the announcement.