No iWatch, No Problem: Why Apple Was Wise to Delay its Smartwatch Launch

There's no reason to release a smartwatch in a wearables market fraught with bad press, broken hardware and consumer ambivalence.

Apple's executive team managed to get through its entire WWDC keynote on Monday without mentioning the terms "wearable," "smartwatch" or "iWatch." Not once. Not even in catty derision of competitors.

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To the untrained eye, this might look like a missed opportunity. We've been hearing rumors about Apple's inevitable iWatch for the better part of a year, and in April Tim Cook signaled that Apple is cautiously exploring new product categories. Meanwhile, every major consumer electronics company save Microsoft has officially committed to the wearables space.

Google, Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony, Motorola--they're all in with a dizzying variety of smartwatches, activity trackers and smartglasses. Even smaller fry like Epson and Razer have thrown down. And Microsoft, while still officially coy about its wearables effort, could apparently release a smartwatch this summer.

But Apple knows June 2014 isn't the right time to pull the trigger. Wearables hype is off the charts, but wearables sales haven't proven out. Perhaps even worse, the wearables market continues to wallow in bad press. Sure, Apple could have jumped into the fray with a thundering "Ta da! We've fixed everything!" at yesterday's WWDC keynote. But now is not the time for heroics.

Apple is much better served by continued restraint. It can take its own sweet time to develop Siri into a more proactive digital assistant. It can leisurely build outA HealthKit and HomeKit, connecting mobile devices to a more fleshed-out Internet of Things.

And it can wait at least a few more months to see public reaction to Android Wear. After all, Apple already has a rich history of borrowing from Android without penalty, so why stop now?

In short: Apple has time to carefully and deliberately assemble its wearables puzzle--if only because its competitors are still struggling to get their own puzzle pieces out of the box.

Sometimes bad press really is bad press

At the dawn of the digital music age, Apple validated the hardware MP3 player concept when it released the first iPod. Apple's spin was immeasurably more elegant than similar products from Diamond, S3 and Creative Labs. But it's important to remember that the MP3 hardware that the iPod leap-frogged was merely just clumsy and forgettable. It wasn't categorically broken, universally panned by journalists, or the focus of public ridicule like so many of today's wearables.

Let's quickly review some low points in the last three years of wearables history. Follow along closely, because everything I'm about to mention must surely give Apple pause.

We've seen two product recalls of activity-tracking wristbands. The original Jawbone UP was recalled in late 2011 because the wristbands were bricking at an alarming rate. The Fitbit Flex was recalled this February because the bands were causing skin rashes on far too many customers.

There's also the embarrassing specter of user attrition in the activity tracker space. A January study by Endeavor Partners indicates that more than half of U.S. consumers who've owned fit-tech wristbands have stopped using them. Maybe this is what provoked Nike to abandon its FuelBand hardware. Perhaps we've hit peak wristband, and are on the downward slide.

Smartwatches have fared poorly as well. Pebble has a devoted fan base, but Sony's smartwatches come and go silently in the night, while Samsung's efforts have received a sustained chorus of negative press. My review of the Galaxy Gear was representative of critical reception, as was my review of the Gear Fit--a smartwatch-activity tracker hybrid that so many critics wanted to love, but just plain doesn't work as advertised.

There's also the nagging issue of nichey sales numbers. Samsung is by far the biggest name in smartwatches, and is on track to sell 2 million units this year, at least if we extrapolate from 500,000 first-quarter sales. But Apple is estimated to have sold 55 million iPhones in that same Q1 time frame. This puts Samsung's smartwatch squarely (sadly, pathetically) in what Steve Jobs would call "still a hobby" territory.

Then we have snake oil companies like Healbe making outrageous claims about automatic calorie counting, calling into question the legitimacy of the entire wearables industry. And, of course, Glass. Oh, Google Glass. It makes normal people fear for their privacy and safety. It provokes class warfare on the streets of San Francisco. It's birthed its own epithet. It's the poster child for the "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing that in public" wearables aesthetics. Glass has become walking billboard for consumer mistrust of the wearables space.

And we expect Apple to just blithely release an iWatch into all of this?

When they're good and ready

Add up all the numbers. Sort the data. Sift through the testimonials. If Apple were to release an iWatch into the current wearables gestalt, anything short of a grand slam product would be a crushing defeat.

That's a risk that's not worth taking. Not now. Not yet. Not when when Apple is still riding high, commanding a leadership position in the smartphone and tablet space, at least in profits if not units sold.

Apple will release a wearable as soon as the time as right, as soon as it makes sense. As soon as Siri has the intelligence of Google Now. As soon as HomeKit and HealthKit are begging for an interface on our wrists. As soon as multi-day battery life is in the bag. As soon as apps can be effectively miniaturized to a 1-inch display. As soon as consumers warm to the very idea of wrist computers. As soon as we've all evacuated the very last traces of wearables-mocking bile from our hyper-critical systems.

Apple will eventually need to realize the next generation of mobility beyond notebooks, smartphones and tablets. But it has no appetite for failure, and no defensible logic says it should dip its toe into the wearables kiddie pool until at least some of its competitors' piss has been filtered through the pipes.

The iWatch rendering at the top of this article was created by Todd Hamilton. You can see more of his iWatch concepts here.

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