It’s just a patent application, filed in 2011, filled with black and white sketches. But iTime is a further glimpse at, not necessarily what the iWatch will look like when it's released later this summer, but their method of exploration into the future of wearables. It's a peek into Apple's creative process—one that seems to be focused, not on inventing the next lustable product, but designing its next product to best express you.
How It Works
Apple's iTime patent deconstructs the smartwatch as we currently know it into discrete components. One part is a core that houses a small touch screen and the main technology that powers the entire system. The other part is the watchband, but it isn't just a dummy strap; the patent suggests the band would be filled with sensors and circuitry that could feed relevant data about you and your surroundings to the core. That may sound trivial, we know, but it’s actually a very important point as to how iWatch is built to function. Rather than cramming every sensor imaginable into a single wearable device, iTime has been designed to be a modular system which enables any number of click-in electronic housings.
The example given in the application is a watch band (of course), that could be filled with an accelerometer, GPS, or even more batteries. iTime is designed, not just to talk to your phone via Bluetooth like Google’s Android Wear watches, but to any sensors it docks to.
A Brand New Apple
Presumably, Apple's iTime patent would open up a hardware ecosystem to third parties, just like they did iPod docks and iPhone cases. But this would allow for more customization that goes beyond offering a variety of colors, would enable different types of functionality. You could have the ultimate running band, fitted with $10,000 in advanced sensors, and it’s compatible with Apple. You could also have a glove, with sensors specifically geared towards motion-based gaming, and its also fully compatible. In many ways, the user experience of iTime would be dictated, not by iTime itself, but whatever weird thing iTime plugged into. Strategically, that's a shift for the company. Based upon its industrial design, there's more or less one way to use an iPhone, and that way is augmented by apps. There could be countless ways to experience iTime, as it's reshaped by anything it plugs into.
With iTime—and I know this is about to get a bit philosophical—Apple could essentially bring their App Store philosophy to wearable hardware and industrial design. Accessories would be the new apps.
The Timing Is No Coincidence
In the last decade, Apple turned their white earbuds into a fashion statement. But the cool factor wore thin. Part of the reason were the rise of a new fashion statement in Beats, but the bigger reason is simply that, while you want to use the same phone, computer, or operating system every day, nobody wants to wear the same thing every day. People dress with variety and self-expression.
By devising a component that can plug into any theoretical smart garment, Apple could create not just a single fashion statement, but an infinite series of fashion statements, while maintaining its spartan, extremely profitable product line. This approach would be in stark contrast to the way wearables like the Jawbone Up have been modeled today, with a one-size-fits-all approach that limits both the use cases (how well can you use a wristband to track your movement if your wrists are stationary on a bike?), and the fashionable use cases (does a bright rubber activity band really work with a suit jacket?).
But iTime’s Greatest Asset Is Also Its Greatest Limitation
The only potential flaw with this iTime approach is that the core has a screen. Because while iTime makes a lot of sense as a glanceable, tappable window on your wrist, there’s little logic in shoving a touch screen into your underwear. Really. Would a Nike+ enabled smart bra benefit from iTime connectivity? Very possibly. Does its square touch-screen form factor limit where it can live comfortably? Absolutely.
In this sense, Apple may be a bit limited by the fact that it’s a product company. They still make most of their money through hardware. And to make this idea something people would get behind, it has to be more appealing, interactive, and user-friendly than a sensor the size of a grain of rice that you weave into your bra strap. Apple can’t just sell a Twine for your body and promise consumers "oh no, the software experience on your iPhone is really superb" because, let’s be honest, who wants to buy their mom a sensor for Christmas? And who’d want to show her how to use it?!?
Honestly, these sorts of problems are exactly why this iTime patent application will probably not resemble the actual iWatch. A modular screen is a neat theory, but it can't scale very elegantly to the countless human factors involved in our everyday lives and our everyday garments.
Apple Faces The Same Challenges As Everyone Else
Even still, the iTime design illustrates the challenge that Apple and every other major electronics company has in the years ahead. How can you be the gateway to wearables—the perfect marriage of form and function that can quite literally fit within the fabric of fashion—but not inherently limit the scope of what can be worn? You wouldn’t want to wear the iTime on your ear, and to some extent, that's extremely limiting to how far Apple (and Google) can go in the small-screen-that-lives-on-your-body approach to wearables.
But at the same time, the trends Apple is outlining with the iTime patent seems to be on the right track. They’re teasing a future in which we’re not all wearing one matching pair of earbuds—or worse yet, the current incarnation of Google Glass—and instead, any number of designers can shape the way electronics look, feel, and function on our bodies. I'd be shocked if Apple's iWatch actually resembled this patent application. Even still, don't be surprised if some of the iTime's design philosophy of user self-expression makes its way in.
In a year, we may all be wearing iWatches. But I highly doubt they will all match.
[Hat tip: AppleInsider]