20 Sep 2013

Can a watch put the shine back on lacklustre Apple?

Apple revolutionised the way we interact with digital media. But with the new iPhone 5S’s headline feature being its golden colour, is the visionary tech brand losing its way?

They are still waiting on the pavement for it, but Apple’s new golden iPhone failed to impress when it was unveiled last week, with a muted reaction from the tech press and a negative one from the stock market. Has the visionary tech brand stopped changing the world? Could a watch put Apple at the front again?

Steve Jobs changed the music industry with the iPod, communications with the iPhone and personal computers with the iPad.

But as Apple release two new iPhones into shops in 20 countries today, the faster chip, fingerprint recognition and golden colour of the iPhone 5S do not seem that revolutionary.

Past its peak?

The selling point of the iPhone 5C – also released on Friday and available in five colours – is that it is cheap. But only by Apple’s standards, because at £465 it is unlikely to be on the shopping list of bargain-hunters in China or, indeed, Europe and America.

In a packed market where even giants like Nokia cannot keep a foothold, it is hard to stay at the front – even for the $429bn Apple, whose market capitalisation makes it the second most valuable company in the world. And for the first time, global mobile sales fell between 2011 and 2012, a 1.7 per cent decline, according to Gartner.

Wearable technology

Many tech commenters think a smart watch could give Apple back its edge. Apple almost certainly has one in development. Watches have been around for centuries but wearable technology is the hot new area in the sector, and it is an iWatch that Apple lovers are eagerly anticipating.

But it is going to be hard to bring the magic to the watch format. Partly because Apple’s competitors have piled in first – Samsung announced its Gear watch ($299) earlier this month. And partly because there is not that much to be done with a watch, because it is by its nature small and attached to your wrist.

Talking into a watch looks cool for small bursts in the movies, but as Angela McIntyre, research director on wearable technology at Gartner, says, having a long conversation that way would be tedious, so it is unlikely we will see it taking over from the phone any time soon. In fact, all current models need to be paired with a phone, so you have to carry both.

“The way they are implementing it is that it isn’t a stand-alone by itself – it has to be paired with a smartphone. And you can’t use a Bluetooth headset and your watch… so you’ll be holding up your watch to your ear to talk, but then everyone else can hear the conversation as well.”

‘Value to the customer hasn’t really been examined’

Though smartphone use has rocketed since the iPhone was introduced in 2007, the prospects for smartwatches do not look so bright. Angela McIntyre explains: “Demand has always been rather small, as value to the customer hasn’t really been examined.”

Companies have not really come up with the goods in the watch category:

“It should be possible to redesign the wristwatch into a useful communication device, but we haven’t seen the innovation out there that’s necessary,” says Ms McIntyre.

“I believe Apple have an iWatch in development, though I don’t know if they’ll bring it to market. If Apple see the way to make the iWatch a lifestyle device and really make it important to consumers they’ll do that. But I think they’re still investigating the category like everybody else.”

Battery size and screen size are limitations on smartwatches compared to phones, in addition to the “talking to your wrist” problem and the “taking photos with your wrist problem”. See this BBC video for an illustration of why that can be awkward.

Monitoring your heartbeat

But there is one interesting advantage to the watch format – that it is nestled next to your skin for most of the day. With the boom in health technology and biometrics, being on your wrist means smartwatches could incorporate the technology in smart armbands like the Nike Fuelband or the Fitbit and take it much further.

“Fitness monitors, activity monitors, heartbeat monitors are catching on with consumers, even more than the smartwatches,” Angela McIntyre explains. “We saw three years ago with the fitness bands, by Nike or Fitbit. Startups have developed tech that so that they don’t have to do anything or stick any sensors on you, they can use for example a light that detects your pulse.”

And that is one way watches could take over from phones.

You may think you do not want Apple to know your temperature, your pulse , the extent to which you move or even how well you sleep. But people previously thought they did not want to look at the internet on their phones. Maybe you will – if they give you a convincing enough reason to.