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Apple's New Frontier

I posted a question on Twitter this morning about this supposed upcoming wrist computer from Apple.[1]

Serious question: who makes the current crappy wrist computer whose ass the iWatch is supposed to kick?

— jcieplinski (@jcieplinski) March 8, 2013

Apple’s talent (mostly credited to Steve Jobs’ vision) has never been to invent completley new products or categories of computing. What Apple does is identify a category of product in which there’s a lot of potential, where there will clearly be an audience, but where there’s currently no product that doesn’t completely suck. Then it makes a product that doesn’t suck in that category and mops up. It’s a beautiful strategy. And it happens to work.

So where are the crappy wrist computers? There’s the Pebble, I guess. A scrappy Kickstarter project that got some of us nerds excited last year. It’s severely limited in features and not altogether fashionable. So there’s potential for ass-kicking, no doubt. But is that all there is out there today? Where’s Microsoft’s wrist computer? Google’s? Sony’s? Samsung’s?

Well, Samsung’s would come after the iWatch, of course.

My point is, if this were the Next Big Thing, wouldn’t others be trying to do it already? Where’s the clear existing audience Apple wants to tap?

There were walkmen and then MP3 players before the iPod. The Treo and Blackberry and Windows Phone before the iPhone. Lots of Windows tablets before the iPad. Even the Mac and Apple II were not the first of their kind.

The other big rumored new product category from Apple, the TV, has tons of existing but unsatisfying devices already in the market. Google TV, Roku, Xbox live, even an existing Apple TV box. Amazon and Netflix are involved as well. A new and revolutionary Apple-branded TV would fit the pattern. Though the most important hurdle—content—seems to remain insurmountable at the moment.

But is this wearable wrist thing an actual category in search of a great product, or is it just something nerds have dreamed about ever since reading Dick Tracy and watching James Bond?

I’m not saying Apple won’t do this product. Seems like there’s enough smoke out there to suggest that Apple is at least building prototypes, if not getting ready for a release in the coming year or two. I’m just saying that if it does release this product, it’ll be somewhat new territory for Apple. Maybe more innovative, even, than anything Apple has done in a long time.[2]

Apple could actually be practically inventing a new category, rather than just dominating it after the fact.

Could it be that Apple has crippled the rest of the consumer electronics market so much that it no longer has rivals capable of trying and failing in these new territories? Is Apple going to have to troll Kickstarter to get new product ideas? Will it have to be first-to-market eventually, in order to keep expanding? I find that a much more fascinating question than whether or not Apple makes a wrist computer or a large-screen iPhone. [3]

Update: Gavin McKenzie (@gavinmckenzie) on reminded me that Microsoft did indeed try the wrist watch market several years ago. They stopped selling their SPOT (Smart Personal Object Technology) line of devices back in 2008, but one of its products was indeed a watch. Good catch. But there are no major players making smart watches today.

  1. I say “wrist computer” rather than “watch” because the iWatch, or whatever it’s called, won’t be a watch. It’ll be a computer on your wrist that happens to tell time. The way the iPhone is a computer in your pocket that happens to make phone calls.
  2. The Newton, oddly enough, is probably the last device of Apple’s that was first-to-market, at least from the standpoint of the major players. I say oddly enough, because that product was also developed and released without Jobs at the helm of Apple.
  3. I’ve danced around the subject of Google Glass here, of course. Google is obviously hot to get into consumer electronics, but so far I think it has chosen its new categories poorly. I personally think that Google Glass will creep people out sufficiently enough that it will effectively go nowhere. I don’t think even Apple has enough trust with its audience to make that one successful—yet. And now that Goolge is the enemy rather than a partner, Apple is going to have to beef up it’s online services a lot more before it can succeed with such a product, anyway. Maybe four or five years down the road. Meanwhile, whether or not Google takes up the mantle of consumer electronics rival to Apple is very much an open question.